Irish telecoms, from switchboards to smartphones

IN every village, town and street in Ireland almost one in two people will have their head down in a smartphone; those same streets are full of shops selling mobile devices and we are inundated with advertisements offering unlimited broadband offers, whether fixed or wireless, or even a combination of both.

Ireland’s software industry, which generates exports of 50 billion euros, includes nine of the world’s biggest tech companies, while a necklace of data centers silently clusters around Dublin’s shops and processes large quantities information. Even more anonymous are the 17 undersea cables that stretch from our shores carrying text messages, phone calls and internet data in and out of the country.

According to the author of Connecting a Nation: “We are awash, some might say, awash in modern telecommunications. Deryck Fay writes that he is old enough to remember when “Ireland was a largely agrarian society with a two-year waiting list just to have a landline telephone installed”.

He questions how we went from this old world society to this modern, super-connected society and he delivered this account not only of a history of engineering and technology, but also of a brilliantly researched – and therefore detailed – account of the development of Irish society and an emerging nation after independence.

Ireland’s information age began in the mid-19th century, 170 years ago, when two cable ships left Wales to lay a telegraph cable at Howth in County Dublin, the first ever link by cable between Ireland and the rest of the world; in the United Kingdom this would allow Dublin Castle to take orders from the Home Office in London or a linen mill in Belfast to take orders from a merchant in England.

With one line running from Howth to central Dublin and another longer line from Holyhead to London, a 15-word telegram could be sent from London to Dublin in a minute, faster than any mode of transport. In 2011, a fiber optic cable laid between Dublin and Holyhead had a capacity of 1,440 terabytes per second (Tbps) – 863,000,000,000,000 times more than the cable laid in 1852.

Media coverage of the exciting event at Howth refers to the arrival of the ‘electric telegraph’. It was a time of tremendous societal development as the industrial age roared with mechanization and investors began to dabble in new ventures and the stock market, this created a huge demand for communications – from the up-to-date price of actions at the latest information to fill the pages of the newspapers.

In fact, newspaper owners realized that readers would pay for timely news and soon became a key market for the telegraph industry to deliver the hottest political storylines and latest stock quotes – perhaps not too different from the modern social phenomenon of FOMO. (fear of missing out).

The telegraph quickly spread across the country, but the next big leap in communications would place Kerry at the center of world communications with a cable laid between Newfoundland and Ireland – a distance of 3,122 km.

The port of Valentia was chosen to be the eastern terminus of the transatlantic cable and this corner of Kerry became ‘America’s next parish’. Further developments saw cables land at Ballinskelligs and Waterville – the Waterville Cable linked to Nova Scotia to the west and England and France to the east.

However, these were not communications for the masses, in 1870 a 10-word telegram from Ireland to Washington DC cost the equivalent of nearly a month’s wages for a farmhand. It will take another 130 years for communication to be truly democratized by the prepaid mobile phone.

The next step forward in communications was the development of voice transmission and the author tells the story of 16-year-old Agnes Duggan taking up her role as a “telephone operator” with United Telephone Company in Dublin in 1861, his work in the exchange room involved a manual telephone switchboard, versions of which would still be in place in rural Ireland into the 1980s.

In Chapter 10, we read the story of postwoman Florence Clairon who will operate her 88-line switchboard for the last time on May 28, 1987; the last manual exchange was replaced by a digital exchange as part of a vast program of telecommunications revolution in the country.

Ireland had been a telecommunications backwater for much of the early 20th century due to bad political decisions; a semi-state company was created in 1927 to develop the electricity network, but the telecommunications service was left under the direct control of the government, with low priority and paralyzed by the lack of investment. Politicians thought there were votes in housing and electrification, but few in telephones.

It was not until 1979 that a major network investment ensured that Ireland had one of the most advanced networks in the world with fully digital service by the end of the 20th century.

Irish female pop group Fab! joined Hugo to launch ‘Ready to Go’, Eircell’s prepaid mobile phone kit, which went on sale in 1997 and was adopted by 2% of the population within two months of its launch. Above are Fab! members Ruth Mc Intyre, front, with rear from left, Aidrieanne Deegan, Aileen Melinn and Tara Lynch. Picture: Maxwells

There was a joke in Telecom Eireann that the only personnel required in a digital exchange were a man and a dog: the dog was employed to bark at the man if he touched the equipment and the man was employed to feed the dog.

There are chapters covering other major developments of the 20th century: The start of broadcasting in 1926 and up to the development of RTÉ and television broadcasting in the 1960s. There are many details of the emergence of multi-channel viewing in the 1970s and 80s with the growth of cable television companies to bring services to cities like Cork and Limerick – much of the east coast and northern counties could receive television signals from Northern Ireland and Wales.

The final chapters of the book usher us into the truly digital era of mobile phone and Internet services. The author quotes a Motorola engineer who worked as a team to develop the first portable mobile phone: “We thought people didn’t want to talk to cars and people wanted to talk to other people… [you] could assign a number not to a place, not to an office, not to a house, but to a person.

Eircell was the sole mobile service provider until 1995, when a competition was opened to award a license to a second mobile operator; Esat Digifone was launched in March 1997 and by Christmas the new network had attracted 105,000 customers.

That same Christmas, Eircell introduced its “Ready-to-Go” prepaid product which was adopted by 2% of the population within two months of its launch. In the early 2000s, almost 2.5 million mobile phones were in use in Ireland.

Although the World Wide Web has been around since 1989, the author writes of the launch of Ryanair’s online booking system in January 2000: “Irish consumers have overcome their skepticism about the internet and converted to joys of booking a cheap flight online. .. With a compelling reason to go online, 20.4% of Irish households were online by the end of 2000, four times the rate in 1998.’

Of course, Internet take-up across Ireland has exposed an urban-rural divide that has forced the government to launch an ambitious National Broadband Plan to connect half a million rural homes to the Internet via fiber.

Deryck Fay’s Connecting a Nation is not just about SIM cards, cables, mobile masts and the internet, it’s a story of people and the development of Ireland, and the central role that telecommunications has played in it. This book is a valuable resource for future scholars with appendices spanning almost 25% of the total number of pages.

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