A new era begins

A new era begins

Late last year Derry became the UK's best connected town. Andrew Mernin heads to Northern Ireland to find out what the superfast broadband fuss is all about.

A RAIN-SOAKED trading estate somewhere in the hills above Derry, Northern Ireland, seems an unlikely gateway into the future world of broadband.

But on this gloomy Wednesday morning, a busload of British hacks has descended on a small printing company to uncover just what can be achieved with a fibre optic infrastructure.

We’ve been accompanied here by telecoms giant BT, which has funded the trip to show off just what is coming to mainland UK in the coming months and years.

Northern Ireland was the test-bed for BT’s fibre optic upgrade – which will dramatically increase UK broadband speeds – and Derry late last year became the country’s first city to have 100% availability of fibre broadband.

Like the rest of the country the North East, Yorkshire and Scotland are already in the throes of BT’s technology overhaul, although it will be several months until they are up to speed with Northern Ireland.

But what major advantages, if any, can business leaders expect once they are plugged into vastly improved internet speeds on offer from BT’s OpenReach programme?

“We’ve had fibre optics for six months and it changed everything for us,” says Print It For Me’s Seamus Breslin.

And, despite a heavy BT presence in the room, there is real sense that he means what he says.

Largely through the capabilities of handling key back office tasks in the cloud, he estimates that the company saves £7,500 each year by not having to spend on maintaining backups, networks and the intranet.

The faster broadband has also opened the company up to ‘software as a service’ – which allows the firm pay for software as and when it needs it. He previously had to pay around £5,000 for packages upfront which far exceeded his needs.

Other benefits reeled off by Breslin include the ability to maintain a working relationship with one particularly good, but distant, employee who recently left the emerald isle for a trip to the other side of the world.

For the wider Northern Irish economy, we are told, the impact of superfast broadband has been huge. Arlene Foster, Minister of Department, Trade, Enterprise & Investment, Northern Ireland, gives us an impassioned explanation of its power to keep upwardly mobile businesses and entrepreneurs from hopping off to the UK mainland. While it is difficult to assess how much of the MP’s speech is infused with positive spin, there’s no denying that having Europe’s most advanced fibre network has worked wonders for the area.

Meanwhile, Johnny McQuoid – BT’s superfast broadband programme director – has witnessed at close hand which sectors have made the most of the dawn of the superfast age.

He says: “For satellite offices and businesspeople on the road, and for office-based tools as opposed to core operational systems, the superfast broadband connection to the internet will speed that up tremendously. It can also stop companies spending more money on leased lines that are no longer required. I’m not sure I could claim that this is fantastically needed for, say, the manufacturing industry however.”

Although superfast broadband may not have a transformational impact on large factory-based firms, it has helped businesses in Northern Ireland with overseas interests, says McQuoid.

“In terms of exports, what we’ve seen in somewhere remote like Northern Ireland is that their connectivity means they are no longer on the periphery of their markets.

“They are absolutely connected and I think, from the export perspective, being able to sell your services on a much wider market absolutely has an impact because it’s not just the download speeds, but your ability to send information on an upload basis is hugely important.”

“There’s obviously a lot of demand for it in the SME market but there’s also a real pull from the government.”

And there’s no shortage of SMEs in Northern Ireland to back up McQuoid’s words. “If we didn’t have access to this fibre broadband service, I doubt we could function as well as we do, if at all,” says Joe Lindsay of Unit 7 Audio Visual. “This has given us the confidence to put in place plans to grow the business and look to the future."