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Servers in Skibbereen: How fast fibre turned an empty rural school into a global tech company

09 Sep 2019Digital Society

Debts of €250,000 and just days from folding in 2008. Meet the tech startup based in rural West Cork whose fortunes turned around thanks to hard work, an unexpected opportunity and gigabit connectivity – becoming the world’s biggest platform monitoring and testing business phone lines.

Rural towns are “dying across the world,” says Kevin Buckley.

Mr Buckley is chief executive of Spearline, the world’s largest provider of services to help companies test the sound quality of their phone lines.

He is also a native of Skibbereen in West Cork, with a population of 2,778.

Gigabit broadband’s arrival in Skibbereen means he can now grow and scale his company – from the town where he grew up.

“It’s hugely important for me to live and work in this area,” says Mr Buckley.

“I had a wonderful upbringing down here in West Cork, and I also wanted to bring my kids up the same way,” he says.

His journey to work is a familiar one to him.

“Actually where we stand today is the secondary school where I was,” he says.

His company occupies the site of the former St Fachtna’s De La Salle secondary school on Skibbereen’s North Street.

The school, which opened during the Famine in 1846, closed in 2016.

A sketch of the newly-built school in 1847. Picture credit: Skibbereen Heritage Centre

It’s a short 750 metre walk from the Ludgate Hub, the tech co-working and startup space which is the centre of digital Skibbereen, and where Mr Buckley serves on the board.

Ireland’s ambassador to Washington, Dan Mulhall, came to open the building officially in August.

In the former school, there are now 24 high-tech rooms across four storeys.

Local councillor and deputy county mayor Joseph Carroll said it was fitting a “building which operated for so long as an educational facility should now be used for technological advancements and innovation.”

Instead of a Famine-era building which closed when the town didn’t have enough young families, it now is a symbol of its new fortunes as a tech hub.

Across the road there is a mural to digital Skibbereen.

The turnaround started in 2014, when Vodafone and Ireland’s Electric Supply Board (ESB) agreed to invest €450 million together to string fibre-optic cable alongside power lines.

And straight up to buildings.

The resulting network will provide download speeds of up to a gigabit per second to half a million homes and businesses in 51 Irish towns.

The first of them is Skibbereen.

Hello from the other side

Before, when they had important conference calls, “we’d be running around the office getting people to get off and downloading,” says Mr Buckley.

And “we’d be flying around the world on a regular basis, and today we don’t have to do that.”

Internet is slower in Ireland than other countries like the UK, and rural broadband is especially patchy.

This is in a country that plays host to the European headquarters of Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

And one that’s the fifth richest in the world, by per capita GDP, according to the International Monetary Fund.

The average download speed across Ireland is just under 39 megabits per second, according to internet research company Ookla’s Speedtest.

"We've people coming back from Australia, we've people coming back from America, we've people coming back from Dublin, coming back from London"

That’s 22.6% slower than in the UK.

In greater Dublin it’s much faster – 67.83 megabits per second in south Dublin – but average fixed broadband download speeds are a lot slower in rural counties.

In County Donegal, it’s 18.39 megabits per second. 18.65 in County Leitrim.

And 23.27 in County Cork, where Skibbereen is.

That’s 41.5% slower than in Cork City.

In a country of 4.9 million people, about one million are still waiting for high-speed broadband internet.

The fastest internet available before the roll out has a top speed of just 80 megabits per second.

It’s slowed by relying on old copper wires for the final skip from a roadside cabinet into homes and businesses.

Call me, call me any anytime

If high speed internet “hadn’t come to Skibbereen”, says Mr Buckley, “we wouldn’t have scaled.”

Spearline has grown to 70 employees from 20 five years ago. Fifty of them work in Skibbereen.

He and his cofounder Matthew Lawlor talk of “doubling, tripling, quadrupling our staff over the next two to three years even,” Mr Buckley says.

And the connectivity means “they have been able to work from home, we allow people to work from home for a couple days a week,” he says.

“Or some people might have young kids, and they might work maybe four to six hours a day.”

So “the flexibility has been huge that we provide, and the connectivity has allowed that to happen,” he says.

He himself lives in Castletownshend, eight kilometers away from Skibbereen.

Castletownshend has a new 4G mast.

And says Mr Buckley, “I get to go home and have dinner with the kids,” down West Cork boreens.

That “has allowed me to be at home more often, and when I need to go on conference calls at night time, I don’t have to go into the office,” he says.

So call me maybe

Gigabit connectivity has “created this ecosystem” in Skibbereen, “and it’s a hugely exciting ecosystem,” Spearline’s chief executive says.

“And people are coming back now” as a result.

“We’ve people coming back from Australia, we’ve people coming back from America, we’ve people coming back from Dublin, coming back from London,” he says.

Spearline is now a crucial part of Silicon West Cork.

The company created a risk and compliance division in May 2018 in response to the introduction of the Great Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), new European data protection regulations.

This GDPR compliance unit was so well regarded that in June Spearline sold it to data company Algo Group.

But just a few years before, the company had debts of €250,000, and the co-founders say they were days from folding.

At that point, in 2008, they mainly sold phone system software and conferencing solutions to businesses.

With the financial crisis, their customers started cutting down on their spending.

One company, though, Premiere Global Inc (PGi), had offices a half hour drive down the road in Clonakilty.

They had toll-free phone numbers around the world, and wanted to know if they were working.

And if you have a free-phone number in Germany or the US, you need someone in Germany or the US to dial it to see if it works.

So PGi were using employee’s grandmothers, aunts and uncles, friends in Irish embassies and local Irish bars to ask them to see if their toll-free numbers were working.

The two college friends found they could do all this with automated software, and servers in each country.

And the software could go a step further, and measure audio quality.

The sound quality on a telephone call, and the delay between the start of the call and when it’s answered, “could mean the difference between a delighted customer or a lost customer,” Mr Buckley says.

So their software replicated customers’ experience, by measuring each of these things automatically, and warning businesses when their telephone lines are likely to put customers off.

When an anomaly is detected, businesses get sent alerts before any customers lodge complaints.

Spearline is now the world’s largest telephone number testing provider.

Loving West Cork’s startup scene to (giga)bits

Skibbereen hit the world gaze in 2016 when local brothers Paul and Gary O’Donovan won Olympic silver medals in rowing.

Both O’Donovan brothers, incidentally, attended St Fachtna’s De La Salle school.

Now Skibbereen is known for bytes as well as boats.

“We’re just seeing the start for today,” says Mr Buckley, “and going forward to go and see the most beautiful things happening in the area.”

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