Sunday 19 November 2017

South by Southwest: how Skibbereen built a gigabit broadband town

While rural Ireland drowns in sub-standard broadband, Skibbereen has taken matters into its own hands with a new 1,000Mbs network and business centre. Our Technology Editor went south to investigate

Local supermarket owner John Field; Anne O’Leary, chief executive, Vodafone Ireland; and Sean O’Driscoll, president of Glen Dimplex
Local supermarket owner John Field; Anne O’Leary, chief executive, Vodafone Ireland; and Sean O’Driscoll, president of Glen Dimplex
Filmmaker David Puttnam and Google Ireland ceo Ronan Harris
Skibereen's new broadband in West Cork has recieved influential backing
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

The Illinois-based startup founder Evan Sims always liked Ireland. But he never thought he could actually move his business here. "A lot of rural ireland just doesn't have access to the network capabilities you need to do a tech startup," he said over the phone from his current base in Champaign, a small city around 130 miles from Chicago.

Yet he and his mother Jane, who does marketing for Sims's business networking startup Rogue Helix, are about to move to Skibbereen in West Cork.

The reason? Skibbereen has started to build out a 1,000Mbs broadband network for its 2,000 homes and businesses. Although being rolled out by Siro (the joint venture between the ESB and Vodafone), the network's inception is partly the result of a campaign by local burghers and successful business people who live or holiday in the area.

"If they didn't have the high speed broadband we wouldn't be able to settle there," said Sims, who hopes to grow his online business to 20 employees over the next few years. "That's made all the difference. We've spent the last six months working with the immigration service and we now have permission."

If ever there were a case of 'build it and they will come', Skibbereen's new Ludgate Hub business centre is it.

The €1m facility, built largely on the goodwill and personal financial donations of successful local business people such as Glen Dimplex president Sean O'Driscoll and local supermarket owner John Field, is bringing people from abroad into West Cork to grow companies.

That includes four from America, two from Spain and at least one from London according to the centre's chief executive, Grainne Dwyer.

It also includes former Ikea marketing executive Mark Stratfold, who has moved to Skibbereen from Saudi Arabia with his Irish wife purely because broadband now allows him to operate his business there.

"I met my wife in the Middle East and she wanted to come back to Ireland," said the South African. "I didn't think we could do a startup from here. We were thinking we would have to go to Dublin or maybe Cork city. But now we can do it here."

Stratfold's startup is targeting online tourism operators, mainly with southern African countries in mind.

"As a tour operator, we want to bring all the platforms together so that itineraries can be personalised," he said. "We're starting with the UK and then going to Southern Africa. It hasn't been done before. At some point we'll be looking for funding. But now we're living in Castletownshend. The lifestyle here is great."

Both Stratfold and Sims will be joined in the new Ludgate Hub centre by incoming staff from Granite Digital, a web design agency currently based in Cork city.

"We've taken two desks here," said Ger O'Shea, co-founder of the company and a nearby resident. "Instead of losing three hours a day commuting to Cork in the commute, we now have the connectivity right here." O'Shea said that broadband quality was "shocking" before the new 1,000Mbs connections arrived in the town.

"We were getting two megabits per second," he said. "When we needed to do some heavy lifting we had to rely on the personal hotspot from the mobile phones."

Now, his company can start thinking about diversifying its offices more in Cork.

"Skibb would never have been a place we recruited from but now we can," he said. "We have 55 staff now and plan to hire another 45 over the next three years."

Walk around the town and you won't meet anyone who isn't upbeat about the arrival of "proper" broadband to the area.

Yet Skibbereen is not a typical example of high speed connectivity reaching far-flung regions.

Siro, the operator building out the network out of the privately-funded coffers of Vodafone and the ESB, flexed its own guidelines to hook up the town.

Previously, its position was that it wouldn't lay infrastructure in towns with less than 4,000 homes or businesses because it wasn't commercially desirable to do so. In that vein, it focused its efforts on non-urban large towns such as Cavan, Dundalk, Tralee or Letterkenny.

But it seems to have made an exception for Skibbereen.

"This is a strong market town," said Siro chief executive Sean Atkinson. "There are a lot of people in small towns in the immediate area who we think will benefit from this."

Skibbereen also benefited from having a powerful cabal of successful business people and celebrities with holiday homes nearby and a love for the gentrified West Cork area.

The board of the Ludgate Hub - all of whom were "very active", according to Ludgate chief executive Grainne Dwyer - contains a number of people that any campaigning group would want on their side. They include Vodafone chief executive Anne O'Leary, Google Ireland boss Ronan Harris, Glen Dimplex president Sean O'Driscoll, RTE director general Dee Forbes and local property owner John Field (who donated the town centre building for use as a business centre).

All have permanent or holiday residences in the immediate area. (The project's launch date was held on the Friday before the August bank holiday weekend, probably with returning holiday home patrons in mind.)

The Ludgate Hub also attracted a number of additional corporate sponsors which pushed its case and provided consultancy, advice and contacts.

"We have received not a penny of public money for this," said Sean O'Driscoll, president of engineering and heating giant Glen Dimplex.

O'Driscoll said that he personally financed much of the interior refurbishment of the Ludgate Hub building.

So while the coming of 1,000Mbs broadband to Skibbereen is something special for the region, it may be difficult to reproduce for less well endowed communities across the country.

Talk to aspiring local businesses, though, and they couldn't care less why the broadband has arrived. They're just happy it's here.

"This will make a huge difference to us," says Kevin Buckley, co-founder and chief executive of Spearline, a fast-growing Skibbereen-based company that tests telephone numbers and communications quality.

"It's all about reliability."

Spearline has been hiring locally for its telecoms-orientated business and Buckley says the new broadband will speed this process up.

"People say that you can't hire people locally but you absolutely can," he said. "On top of that, we now have people coming into Skibbereen with skills to work for us. We have a guy who relocated from India to Skibbereen just to work here."

And workers from local islands will now stay in Skibbereen rather than go to Cork or Dublin, according to Adrian Legg, chief executive of CultureArk, an online archiving startup currently based in Sherkin Island off the West Work coast.

"The people we need to recruit are here," said Legg. "We're now going to take a desk here in the Ludgate Hub. This is dynamite."

Grainne Dwyer says that she has been contacted by 15 towns across the country, asking for advice on how to set up a centre like Ludgate to attract startups and new businesses.

"They're all saying that they have some closed or disused buildings," she said. "Our message is that you can do it. But no-one's going to invest in a thrown if all they hear is bad news."

Up until recently, Skibbereen had its share of bad news.

"I've watched young people leave West Cork," said John Field, owner of the town's largest SuperValu store and the donor of the building in which the Ludgate Hub is now located.

"These are people from Skibbereen who are anxious to come back."

Other celebrated local residents agreed.

"This is a wonderful place but young people had to go to cities to get the jobs they needed," said David Puttnam, the Oscar-winning filmmaker who lives nearby. "That may no longer be the case."

Even global tech firms see an interesting story in Skibbereen's broadband buildout.

"This is going to have a transformative effect on business here," said Ronan Harris, head of Google in Ireland and owner of a home close to Skibbereen.

Others hope for more employment and extra commercial activity from the new infrastructure.

"The overall objective is to create 500 jobs and 1,000 indirect jobs here," said Anne O'Leary, chief executive of Vodafone Ireland.

This could also have an effect on local property and retail business, according to RTE director general Dee Forbes.

"There are houses being sold locally where this forms part of the purchasing decision," said Forbes.

"I know of one restaurant moved here specifically because of this. Skibbereen was decimated. This is already making a huge difference."

Local business people are trying to keep their foot on the accelerator with a new €300,000 seed fund for local startups. Glen Dimplex president Sean O'Driscoll is one of the investors.

"We're not limiting ourselves," he said. "If there are good projects out there, that figure can be higher."

While half of the rented desks at the Ludgate Hub are being taken by locally-based workers from multinational IT and pharmaceutical firms, small businesses should be the ones to benefit in the long term, according to the head of Cork's Chamber of Commerce.

"This is transformational to the town," said Barrie O'Connell, who is also a partner at KPMG.

"The ability to bring digital speed here means that a whole host of barriers disappear and geography becomes history.

"We see companies allowing people to work away from the office all the time now. Two of my team are Skibbereen natives. And that's part of the reason we got behind this. They promoted and sponsored this as a good thing for us to do."

High speed broadband in the rest of rural Ireland: what’s happening and when

With a population nearing five million people, Ireland has only 10,000 fibre broadband connections according to industry estimates.

That puts us near the bottom of the OECD's table for fibre broadband penetration, even if this figure doesn't take into consideration cable broadband from Virgin in cities (which currently matches many fibre broadband offerings).

By 2022, this paucity of broadband in rural Ireland is due to be reversed. Here are the different schemes currently planned.

1. National Broadband Plan: According to the Government's National Broadband Plan, over 700,000 rural Irish homes and businesses will have a fibre broadband connection or some service that connects to fibre very close by. This will be paid for via a public private partnership between the state and one or more of Eir, Enet and Siro, the joint venture between Vodafone and the ESB). However, following delays, the new fibre broadband infrastructure won't commence building until the summer of 2017.

Sixty percent of the rural homes to be covered will be completed by the summer of 2019, the government says, with the more remote locations hooked up over the following three years. This is a taxpayer-funded initiative that could cost the State €500m.

2. Siro: The ESB and Vodafone have commenced building out a series of town-based fibre broadband networks under the name of Siro. So far, they have wired up Carrigaline (in Cork), Cavan Town, Letterkenny, Dundalk, Sligo and Tralee. They are currently in the process of laying fibre in Skibbereen and a handful of other towns.

The service is currently only available to end-users from Vodafone, although other companies may start to resell it too. The speeds vary from 350Mbs (€55 per month) to 1,000Mbs (€90 per month).

3. Eir: Eir currently has its own rural broadband rollout under way. The company says that it will have 100,000 rural homes and businesses connected to fibre broadband by the end of 2016 and 300,000 by the end of 2019.

There remains some confusion over this, however, as the Government has not yet accepted that Eir will build these broadband connections.

4. Enet: Estimated to have about a third of Ireland's existing active 10,000 fibre broadband connections. It has built out services in towns such as Claremorris (Mayo), Loughrea (Galway), Ardee (Louth) and Kilkenny.

It mainly targets business customers with these fibre connections. It is continuing to build out rural locations around towns.

Why towns desperately need good broadband to stay in business

One reason why Skibbereen is making such a fuss about high speed broadband coming to the area is the growing realisation that modern life is becoming more difficult without it.

According to a recent Amarach survey of 1,000 people outside Ireland's cities, a growing proportion of Ireland's rural population say that there is pressure on them to abandon their homes and move to cities because of poor regional broadband infrastructure.

One in four rural dwellers say they "would be forced" to move to a city or large town without proper broadband, according to the survey, which was commissioned by Vodafone.

Of rural homes that have some form of broadband, almost one in four uses the internet at home for work. And nearly 150,000 of those say that they choose to avoid commuting some or all of the time because they can connect to work through the internet.

One in five now say that they have to leave home to access the internet, with the same number saying their home has no broadband access at all.

Existing internet services are increasingly obsolete, too. Half of rural homes with connectivity say that they have insufficient speeds to perform ordinary tasks.

"The results suggest that both businesses and potential employees won't consider places with poor broadband infrastructure," said Gerard O'Neill, chairman of Amarach Research.

"It also suggests that having proper broadband improves the chance of attracting returning emigrants, many with skills."

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