David C McCourt: 'My pride at being able to bring a bright future to rural Ireland'
Why bringing broadband to rural Ireland and ending the digital divide means so much to me, writes David C McCourt, chairman of National Broadband Ireland
Last Tuesday afternoon marked a milestone for this country. After seven years in gestation, the Government unanimously agreed to sign off on the National Broadband Plan. It will end the urban/ rural digital divide and bring unprecedented benefits to Ireland for decades to come.
It was a very proud day for me personally as the Granahan McCourt consortium (National Broadband Ireland) was announced as the preferred bidder for the contract to deliver this life-changing infrastructure to more than half a million homes, schools and businesses in rural Ireland.
It means our team at National Broadband Ireland - the company set up to roll-out this nationwide fibre broadband - can now set its sights on making this plan a reality and start the real work in getting more than 146,000km of fibre cable in place, hiring up to 2,000 people to do so during the course of the network build. We will invest €2.5bn in the project over 25 years.
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The scale and complexity of the National Broadband Plan is incredibly ambitious and it requires deep knowledge of designing, building and operating telecoms network infrastructure.
I am proud of the many decades of telecoms experience I have been fortunate to bring to the project, but what makes me even more proud is what I'm bringing back - the fruits of my grandparents' sacrifice following their emigration from rural Ireland to the US in a much more testing time. My mother, now the great age of 102, often recounted stories to my six siblings and I of my grandmother's memories.
I am a proud Irish-American, with family and connections here, and have owned a home in the Co Clare countryside for more than 20 years. Ireland is - and has always been - a major part of my identity. In fact, growing up in the Irish communities of south Boston gave me a real sense of belonging and something to identify as or with. So I'm far from a 'foreign investor'.
Ballymacward is a bit of a backwater, a tiny village with a church, a shop and a pub. But to my grandparents, it was home. This little townland in east Co Galway - which I visit frequently and where my cousins still live - is like so many others across the country, a proud close-knit community with a local GAA club, Padraig Pearses, like many other small parishes. However, many of the locals need to commute more than 40km daily for work, to a congested Galway city.
Many of those who went to the local school through the years are long gone because facilities and infrastructure - which we take for granted in towns and cities, along with jobs - are nowhere to be found. But, after years of decline and under-investment, Ballymacward and all those other rural communities, which make up a quarter of Ireland's population, could have a better and brighter future. While a part of the townland has access to broadband, neighbours a few doors up don't.
That's what I want to bring to Ballymacward - a reason and opportunity for people to stay so future generations are not economic emigrants like my grandmother.
I believe the provision of high-speed broadband can be life-changing, whether for fledgling enterprises, e-health programmes and remote monitoring, e-education, new farming technologies or working from home. This is not about Netflix, it's about equity for all our citizens in their participation in society.
While many have welcomed the development, others have disagreed with the need for the National Broadband Plan and the awarding of preferred bidder status to Granahan McCourt.
I am not simply an American investor and I have never been a venture capitalist. I have been working in telecommunications for four decades and my work and career has led me to build and grow many successful businesses. It's not for me to say I have been any kind of pioneer, but we have founded businesses from the ground up many times and been bold enough to challenge the norms and take on industry giants who control monopolies in no one else's interest but their own.
My mission across these multiple telecom ventures has been simple: run a commercially successful enterprise, create jobs and serve the under-served.
For the past 30 years, I've ridden the wave of change the industry has been through.
Let's look at what has changed: phone calls were 30c a minute but now they are virtually free; there was one monopoly per market with 100pc market share, now in Ireland we have more than 70 internet service providers; when I started out there was no regulatory framework for competition; no competition to speak of; no commercial internet to speak of; no cable modem; no smartphone; no social networks; no concept of wifi or walking into a room and having connectivity; content was controlled by a few; equipment was centrally designed and controlled by a few.
I list these examples as today we are building a network future-proofed for the next 30 to 40 years and the rate of change is going to be huge.
We have one chance to do this and do it right.
With the National Broadband Plan, Ireland is making a commitment to serve its people for decades to come and end the digital divide we see opening up before us.
National Broadband Ireland will be an open access network which will enable customers to have a choice of operators, and we will connect customers within 10 days of receiving an order. Regardless of peak usage times, everyone is guaranteed speeds of 150Mbps, but packages of up to 1Gbps will be available from the first day.
When I built my second company, Corporate Communication Network, we were the first competitive phone company in the US. We looked at the monopolies in the market and saw that consumers were being treated poorly and charged astronomical fees.
From my first venture into telecoms, it has been a consistent focus on needing to be better; bring costs down; create a level playing field for all operators to have access to the best networks at the same cost; look after consumers' interests; and build networks which are designed to scale and be future-proof.
We've been fortunate to take this approach around the world and succeed in some of the globe's largest telecoms infrastructure projects.
Albert Einstein said that "nothing travelled faster than the speed of light" - so show me a technology better or faster than fibre, which transmits broadband data at the speed of light. The future for rural Ireland is bright, and light will lead the way.