From child to MAN – Ireland’s fibre network celebrates 10 years
As 10 enet staffers mark a combined century of service, Conal Henry, CEO of enet reflects on the impact their work has had.
In 2004 iPhones, netbooks and Twitter had yet to make their debut but, crucially for Ireland, 28 cities and towns had started to “light up” their Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs). enet has managed these world-class networks of fibre optic cable for over a decade on behalf of the State and while the company now employs over 60 staff, in the beginning there was a core group of dedicated ten telecom pioneers.
As a reward for their hard work, loyalty and dedication, these employees recently enjoyed an all-expenses paid trip to New York. While in The Big Apple, the ten enet veterans – Braonán Gardiner, Maeve McDonnell, John Fitzgerald, Mary McCabe, Lisa O’Donnell, Roy Coughlan, Nick Naughton, Edward Enright, Shaun Moloney and James Tiernan, met with David C. McCourt, Chairman and CEO of Granahan McCourt who last year acquired enet alongside Oak Hill Advisors, and the family of Walter Scott Jr.
A look back
Today, the State’s investment in the MANs looks like money well spent. In the early noughties both the Government and Irish businesses agreed that significant investment in developing an open access fibre network for Ireland was crucial to further economic development in Ireland’s regions. So long as dominant player eircom controlled the old copper wire network there was no business case for private telecom operators to develop a competitive fibre network outside of Dublin. As a result, competition and innovation for telecoms service was being stifled. This was the original digital divide.
In 2004, in response to this critical infrastructural and market failure, the Government committed €78 million to develop fibre rings around 28 regional centres, and thus the MANs were born. Today, fibre is universally accepted as the best network for speed and reliably but a decade ago, copper was still being promoted by incumbent operators focused on sweating existing infrastructure.
Over the past ten years, the MANs have become central to Irelands telecommunications network. Over 60 of Ireland’s leading service providers now use the MANs to provide their suites of services, including household names like Vodafone UPC, BT and Imagine. Most of the service providers have integrated the MANs into their own networks, and depend greatly on the networks to deliver their high bandwidth data products and services.
The MANs have driven competition in the telecoms infrastructure market, reducing prices for businesses and householders. In Cork, for example, 30 different service providers are utilising the Cork City MAN, creating platform competition and stimulating a quality, breadth and competiveness of offerings that was simply not possible before the networks were deployed.
Another great advantage of the MANs is that they are purely wholesale, so service providers buying bandwidth from enet are not going into competition with them. If you buy telecoms infrastructure from Eircom or BT you’re also competing with them, whereas enet’s customers don’t compete with us. The MANs are available to any service provider to offer services on, and that model enables both established players and new entrants the chance to compete.
MANs are a direct boost to the local economies too. Analysis of IDA figures has shown that MAN enabled towns have increased their share of foreign direct investment from 24% to over 89%, helping to fulfil another major Government policy goal of more balanced regional development.
The IDA is unequivocal in its view that the MANs have provided their clients with greater choice, service and better prices when it comes to broadband and telephone connectivity. Indeed, the State’s champion of inward investment went so far as to say that a number of its clients, currently located in towns with MANs, would not have located there in the absence of the networks.
Having being in operation over 10 years, the MAN in Limerick underpins an astonishing 97% of all IDA announced jobs over that period.
The benefits of the MANs have also extended to the country’s third level institutions, with every regional university and Institute of Technology benefiting from the fibre network. More recently, the MANs have also been involved in the delivery of 100Mbs broadband to 222 second level schools as part of the Department of Communications’ 100Mbs for Schools project.
There are now 94 MAN enabled towns around the country, positioning the State’s fibre infrastructure at the heart of Ireland’s Next Generation Network.
We have seen significant strides in policy recently, with the State expected to start development of the ambitious National Broadband Plan very shortly. It’s clear that any investment needs to commence sooner rather than later – the longer we leave it, the less of a competitive advantage that Ireland will derive from it. Like physical infrastructure, every country will get there sooner or later but the real winners will be those countries that are pioneers and get there first. Ireland can and should be a pioneer in digital infrastructure.
The crucial next step is to clearly identify how policy and industry can combine to ensure that return is maximised for all stakeholders. I believe strongly that the sort of economic boost that Next Generation networks can give will only be achieved with significant State support – State support in the form of access to infrastructure, in the form of the provision of investment certainty and in the form of strategic co-investment with the private sector.
When making the next great leap in telecoms infrastructure, we all must, however, be mindful not to re-monopolise the access network. The MANs have helped the telecoms industry move away from network “ransom strips” – so future investment, in particular from the State, must not re-create the problems of old.
The MANs are proof that the PPP structure is the ideal structure through which the State can provide the support that is needed.