Monday 26 February 2018

Need for broadband speed drove plan to connect west

This week we talk to one man about what it took to build his business from scratch

Paul Cunnane of Westnet Photo: Keith Heneghan / Phocus
Paul Cunnane of Westnet Photo: Keith Heneghan / Phocus Business

Originally from Mullingar and from an IT background, Paul Cunnane moved from Dublin to Mayo for a change of pace in 2001 -but found that access to broadband was severely lacking. Rather than simply complaining about it, he decided to set up his own broadband company, and so in 2005 Westnet was born. The company was set up with the aim of establishing affordable, high-quality broadband to rural communities in the west of Ireland.

Since setting up the business, Westnet has established more than 100 local access points and a high-capacity fibre-optic and licensed wireless backbone which runs the length and breadth of Mayo.

"Our customers are all in the west of Ireland, as far south as Clonbur, Co Galway and as far north as west Sligo. We reach as far west as Achill Island and as far east as parts of Roscommon," says Cunnane.

"Having a good broadband service is essential in this day and age. Our Castlebar data centre is linked into Ireland's fibre network and beyond. From the Westnet hub we have used fibre and wireless technology to create a comprehensive network linking much of the region.

"We have a customer support phone line and SMS service operating seven days a week backed up by our team of engineers. Our sales team can check a customer's location using sophisticated network-mapping software to see if a customer's location has fibre service available or is within our wireless coverage."

Westnet has installed network access points in many of the rural areas of Co Mayo, helping local businesses develop and thrive in areas where the existing communications network had previously let them down.

"Additionally, homeowners and students in Mayo can now sit in the comfort of their own homes to gain easy access to the internet for leisure, business and education purposes," says Cunnane, who has worked in the IT business since 1987, starting as a junior computer programmer in a Mullingar factory.

He then held various IT roles in software, hardware and networks and became the international information systems manager for The Learning Company, a publisher of educational software and games, which was bought by toymaker Mattel.

Disillusioned with the dotcom bubble, he moved to Mayo for a change of pace in 2001 as he had family roots there. He spent a few years as a personal development coach, but never lost his interest in all things IT.

"I was constantly frustrated with the inability to get fast or even reliable broadband. I think anyone living in rural Ireland can identify with that struggle," he says.

Homeowners and students living in outlying areas were depending on town centre internet cafés, or on unreliable mobile dongles, for broadband internet access, he adds

"My struggle to get any sort of internet access in rural Mayo led to me to set up a wireless broadband co-operative - the Knockmore Network - which led in turn to setting up Westnet."

Cunnane assembled a team of skilled professionals, creating a blend of IT, networking and radio communications expertises to deliver reliable solutions to areas that are not considered cost-effective by other suppliers.

"We've been getting faster and faster all the time. Late last year, we signed a deal with Siro, the ESB-Vodafone joint venture company, which will allow us to provide one-gigabit broadband to the people of Westport and Castlebar," says Cullane.

"This means that the people in these areas can access broadband as fast as international hubs like Hong Kong or Singapore.

"As a regional broadband provider, it is fantastic to be able to avail of Siro's open access network as we can compete with any telco offering services in these towns."

Being able to offer both wired and wireless services gives Westnet flexibility in the products that it can offer to its customers.

It can offer direct fibre to the home where those services are becoming available, high-speed broadband through the phone lines in most of the region's towns, and wireless broadband almost everywhere else.

Westnet was one of the first regional internet service providers (ISPs) to recognise the importance of supporting high-speed fibre services to homes.

When the National Broadband Plan was announced in 2012, Westnet publicly embraced the idea of rolling out fibre services to every premises in the country, and it has signed agreements to provide services on commercial fibre networks in the meantime.

"When we started out, we had to build our own network from scratch," says Cunnane.

"There was precious little fibre in Mayo, and what was there wasn't available to operators like us at the time, so we built our own radio network to cover the county and now that Siro is in Mayo, we have access to the best broadband in the country.

"We've kept that radio network updated to the latest available technology, and in recent years we've been able to access fibre backbone networks, which complement and add resilience to the radio backbone."

Westnet employs 13 people, and Cunnane believes it is important to have like-minded staff. He says that to provide the best service he needs to have staff who know what they are talking about and are at the top of their game.

"Having staff with complementary strengths and abilities who can bring something different to the table is invaluable to me."

Cunnane also emphasises the importance of co-operation among the wider business community - he himself recently completed a stint as chairman of the ISP Association of Ireland, and Westnet co-founder Brendan Minish has been a member of the board of INEX, the Irish neutral internet exchange, for several years.

Cunnane's story is an excellent example of how a personal struggle identified a gap in the market and how it is possible to harness existing skills and experiences to solve a problem for a large range of customers, demonstrating that a high technology product doesn't need to begin life in a large business hub.

Sean Gallagher is on holidays

Sunday Indo Business

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