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Silicon West Cork: How Skibbereen is building a tech economy on top of Gigabit broadband

08 Sep 2019Digital Society

It used to take a day for Skibbereen furniture maker Aodh O’Donnell to download a large file.

It means he often lost out on work. "If you don't get the tenders back on a given time on a given day, you can be discarded," he says. Sometimes especially large design files would time out. And "quite often somebody would send you a large email and they'd ring you up ten minutes later" asking about the project. If so, he would need to admit he hadn't received it. But now, "it's instantaneous", he says.

Skibbereen is now the first Gigabit town. It's one of fifteen towns where Vodafone and Ireland's Electricity Supply Board (ESB) have committed to offering one gigabit broadband to local businesses and start-up hubs. That connection is free for the first two years. And as a result, "there's a different buzz around Skibbereen" now, says Mr O'Donnell. "I’m hearing stories continuously of people that used to work in London or in Hong Kong who are now working from home in Skibbereen," he says. His company, O'Donnell Furniture, makes high-end pieces for five-star hotels and cruise ships.

It is a family business. His great-great grandfather began making furniture in the early nineteenth century. "It's nice being able to stay in West Cork and run a business from West Cork, that's international really," he says.

Siriusly fast

At the heart of the gigabit Skibbereen is a new 100% fibre-optic network, built in a design called fibre-to-the-building, with no copper connections at any point to slow connections down. A four gigabyte high definition film would take an hour to download on a 10 megabytes-per-second connection. But it takes 30 seconds on this network, which is a hundred times faster.

The Vodafone-ESB joint venture behind the gigabit town, called Siro, is named for the star Sirius, a binary star which is the brightest in the night sky. And  "while we're getting one gigabit speeds, really we will go up to 10 gig and further," says Anne O'Leary, chief executive of Vodafone Ireland. "If we can replicate this right throughout rural Ireland, we want to do that," she says.

SIRO, the The Vodafone-ESB joint venture behind the gigabit town. Picture credit: SIRO

Switching offline Ireland on

New fast 5G internet's arrival has been a godsend for businesses like Mr O'Donnell’s. And also for young people wanting to pursue careers on the world stage, from a town where beaches like Tragumna are a ten-minute drive away. And where you might get a four-bedroom detached house for €200,000. 

A third of what same house would cost in Dublin. "I think broadband connectivity has really become like electricity or water," says Ms O'Leary. And poor connectivity caused a lack of jobs, bringing a brain drain. "One of the main reasons that towns like Skibbereen haven't been able to attract high-quality industries has been the lack of connectivity," says Adrienne Harrington, chief executive at Skibbereen's Ludgate Hub, a new coworking space.

Once young residents of Skibbereen "went to university in Cork or Dublin, they then didn't see any reason to come back," says Ms Harrington. Poor internet coverage had been called the ultimate death eknell of rural Ireland. With large Irish cities like Dublin experiencing a housing crisis, smaller towns and the countryside might start to look like more affordable, pleasant places for telecommuting and start-ups. It's ropey rural internet that has held this back.

Aoibheann Mangan, 2018 European digital girl of the year in the 11-14 category. Picture credit: The Connaught Telegraph

Aoibheann Mangan likens rural Ireland's internet coverage to "living in the stone age". Aoibheann, who is twelve years old, learned to code when she was eight. Last year, she was named European digital girl of the year in the 11-14 category.

But she doesn't have broadband at home, in her family's village of Hollymount in County Mayo, with a population of 60. So she travels to a car park of a Tesco, 18 kilometers away to get online. Paul Davis and his wife Ami Madden run a small livestock business in Dunmore, Co. Galway (pop. 600), that makes 90% of its sales online. But they have to get in their car and drive six miles to get online. The challenge, historically, has been that providing broadband is more expensive per customer in less dense rural areas. And "Ireland is quite remote and the density of premises are, you know, quite apart," says Ms O'Leary, "so the cost to connect can be higher than, let's say, an apartment block in a city center location."

But switch on fast broadband, and businesses and telecommuters start moving back fast. To a place of artisan shops and beaches, that Mr O'Donnell calls "surrounded by water", and where "the next step from here is America". The "whole economy of a town transforms and the social life changes", says Serpil Timuray, chief executive of Vodafone's Europe Cluster. "We now have over 100 jobs in Skibbereen that have been created on the back of the one-gig connectivity," Ms Harrington says.

One local software company has expanded by twenty five new staff. And SixWest, a high-end Dublin aviation services company, has set up six of its staff in Skibbereen, and says there are many more to come.

A place filled with computer memory

At the centre of digital Skibbereen is Ms Harrington’s Hub. People now working in the Hub including the six SixWest employees, like the company’s finance director Áine Scully.

And they stretch from David Keane, a senior patent attorney, to Gráinne Dwyer, who set up a video production firm called Stori Creative, and Bev Cotton, who moved from London and Oxford to start up a marketing firm, the Fastnet Group. For four decades a cinema and afterwards a bakery, the building laid empty when its owner, local businessman John Field, decided to donate it to house the Hub.

The building was renovated in 2015 and opened in 2016. It is named for Percy Ludgate, born across the road in 1883.

Ludgate designed the second ever analytical engine in 1909, unaware of the earlier one created by Charles Babbage. Ludgate worked on the early computer in the early hours of the morning, while working in Dublin as a corn merchant clerk. A working example does not survive, but Ludgate described it in a paper published in the Scientific Proceedings of the Royal Dublin Society, “On a proposed analytical machine”.

Where Babbage’s uses addition as its base mechanism, Ludgate’s uses multiplication.  The mechanism it uses is similar to slide rules, and its memory is a system of rotating concentric metal cylinders.

At its base was an elegant system of indexes now called Irish Logarithms. Computer historians now consider it an advance and simplification of Babbage’s design, closer to the Harvard Mark I IBM created in 1944 as part of the Manhattan Project.

Ludgate died young, at the age of 39. Today, Trinity College Dublin’s prize for the best final-year project in computer science is named the Ludgate Prize in his honour. As is Skibbereen’s Ludgate Hub.

The “key to the success of Skibbereen and the Ludgate center has been the local community,” says Ms O’Leary. “I mean, you can bring connectivity but if people don’t embrace this and think about what they can do with this, it’s never going to work.” Now next up, says Mr Field, is a Ludgate 2, after the first hub’s success. Between the Gigabit connectivity and the Hub, “the original target was 200 jobs” created in Skibbereen, he says.

“400 is the next target. And will we reach that? Yes, we will, absolutely, no doubt whatsoever,” says Mr Field.

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