"SORRY IT'S all a bit technical," Eamon Ryan apologises, as he wraps up a Government media briefing on its grand "green tech" plan to create 30,000 jobs via such innovative delights as Optical Burst Packet Switching. "But it's also real," he adds. "And it will work."The Government hopes to create tens of thousands of hi-tech, 'green' jobs - but some observers are wondering whether we have the capability or the cash to achieve it, writes LAURA SLATTERY
The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources is convinced that Ireland can do a "digital leapfrog" over our economic rivals and make Ireland a "test bed location" for green technologies. It will begin its task by partnering with InTune Networks to build the Exemplar "smart network" that promises dependable, instantaneous connectivity and much more besides.
But can the so-called smart economy really generate the tens of thousands of jobs that the Government hopes will drag us out of our economic hole?
With many household users and businesses still grappling with the frustrations of broadband, there was plenty of "walk before you can run" scepticism emanating from the part of the communications market that is not Eircom, while Fine Gael communications spokesman Simon Coveney lauded the "exciting ideas" but bemoaned the next round of working groups that they would inevitably spawn.
Elsewhere in the industry, however, there were mentions of Government "bravery", while at InTune Technologies, co-founder John Dunne was in no doubt about the significance of the Government's announcement.
"This is how companies like Google are created," he says.
For Dunne, the point about Exemplar is not that end users get faster, better internet connections, but that the network will solve a "global, economic and technical problem" - permanently de-clogging network bottlenecks through patented tuneable lasers.
"If the problem isn't global, you don't get the multiplier effect from exports. If it's just economic, it can be copied by other countries and if it's technical but not economic, it has no value," he explains. Solving problems that are all three of these things is rare.
But InTune had never really planned to use its technology in Ireland in this way. That the Government has put its hands up and decided it wants to be the early adopters for once seems to have surprised the company as much as anyone: Ireland "normally waits for technology to be rolled out somewhere before touching it". If it acts now, Ireland will have a "two to three year lead time" on other countries, he says. A good thing too: "Ireland can't afford to be a follower anymore."
The real benefit to the economy is that InTune's programmable network infrastructure will be available for use to a range of other access technology companies and software companies, "so someone working in a garage can come up with a better way to do video search than Google", or Google itself can roll out cloud computing (remote data storage) services over the predictable network. From the autumn, InTune plans to sit down with Irish optical component suppliers such as Eblana and Firecomms, while Google, Microsoft and IBM will also be among those included in the expanded research group. "Anyone who wants to do R&D in the supply chain will have access to the network," says Dunne.
The Government estimates that the development of Exemplar, apart from creating 350 jobs at InTune over the next three years, will bring in a further 5,000 direct jobs and 5,000 indirect jobs over the next decade.
Dunne reckons 700 people are needed to do the R&D alone: after that there has to be people to do the network checks and man the customer service centres, and that's before the multiplication factor from exports, drawing in multinationals and providing the "turbo boost" to the Government's other target "green tech" industries is considered.
Ryan's calculation that 30,000 jobs can be generated also includes a potential 10,000 jobs in cloud computing or "green data centres", a handful of which already exist in Ireland, and another 10,000 jobs supported by the proposed International Content Services Centre (ICSC). Essentially, the plan is to turn Ireland into a digital depot or island depository for data-hivers. But as well as taking its place as the cloud computing capital of Europe, Ireland can act as the content "brokers" between the revenue-starved owners of intellectual property (IP) and the piracy-struck distributors.
In some ways, the "green collar" tag is a misnomer: many of the existing projects mentioned in the Government's action plan have economic and technological progress at their core: their ability to lower energy costs is a welcome by-product. But coupled with Bord na Móna's announcement that it will create 300 jobs researching how to convert biodegradable waste to fertiliser, it has been a nicely "green" week for the Government after last week's dismal cutback talk.
Speaking of which . . . it seems churlish to bring up the awkward issue of how this future-proofing of the economy is going to be paid for, but paid for it must be. If the Government doesn't act quickly, comparable technologies could be developed in other countries, destroying the first-mover advantage. Ryan was vague about costs this week, saying it would come from a range of sources, including both Exchequer and industry funding.
"The announcement is long on ambition and short on specifics," says Tom Raftery, an analyst at sustainability consultants RedMonk.
Without more detail, the Government "might as well announce that they are going to put a man on the Moon in 2020", Raftery says: "There is no mention of how it is going to be funded and no mention of how they're going to get there."
Raftery has experience in the industry: he is a non-executive director of the Cork Internet eXchange (Cix), a pioneering green data centre that plans to take part in the Government's effort to dot the country with similar centres. It's not that the overall targets are overambitious, he says, just that the strategy document fails to emphasise the importance of first of all increasing the supply of renewable energy.
Ireland's ambient temperature of 10 degrees Celsius is ideal for cooling down output temperatures in cloud computing centres in a low-cost, low-energy way, he explains. The trouble is, there's nothing to stop a cost-cutting Silicon Valley company from choosing temperate British Columbia or Seattle for their remote data storage - in fact, if those locations have a higher penetration of renewables on the energy grid than Ireland, the companies can secure the double whammy of lower energy costs and a tidier carbon footprint, all in their own time zone.
There is some homework too to be done by the content providers that will form the backbone of the proposed ICSC.
A working group and feasibility study should be completed by the end of the year, says Neil Leyden, a scriptwriter and media consultant who came up with the idea for an IP clearing house and wrote about it in the magazine Technology Ireland six months ago. It was picked up by an adviser to Ryan, Barry McSweeney.
Leyden isn't going to swear that the ICSC can create 10,000 jobs as such - "I wouldn't want to top or tail it in any way", he says. At the very least, however, it can provide services to the hundreds of existing Irish digital content creators in the music, animation, film and games sectors.
For example, the content owned by a company like Muzu.tv, the Irish firm that was busy snapping up music video licensing rights again this week, isn't always available in all territories, Leyden notes. But digital rights such as these could be exploited globally through an ICSC that was fully staffed by copyright solicitors. Such a clearing house could be an easy revenue-spinner, and one that dampens existing forms of piracy while it's at it.
"The thing about IP is that you get revenue out of nothing," says Leyden, who runs a Digital Hub-based company called Calico.ie and chairs the Digital Media Forum.
"Obviously jobs are a huge concern, but there is also the benefit of having that content flow through Ireland, because that leads to a flow of revenues, which in turn, brings in jobs."
But even if the knock-on effects aren't quite that momentous and the currency of content, cloud computing and network building turns out to be rather more modest than everyone in the industry and Ryan's department hopes, there are many who will agree that these ambitions will still have been worthwhile.
Anything that takes the economy out of the hands of developers and into the hands of its scientists has got to be taken seriously.
posted by Neil Leyden @ 1:17 p.m.