Project Lightning strikes as Sync NI meet with Virgin Media Ireland CEO Tony Hanway

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  • Virgin Media are currently announcing plans that will see Northern Ireland as the latest country to benefit from ultrafast broadband. For some, the £3bn investment programme known as Project Lightning will come at a good time, as increasing numbers of homes and businesses turn to broadband as a means of work, trade and entertainment. Sync NI were lucky to catch up with Virgin Media Ireland’s CEO, Tony Hanway, where we talked moving careers, changing technologies and the firm’s full plans for Project Lightning.

                       As with many professionals in the telecommunications sector, Tony Hanway first earned his stripes in ICT. Tony started out in Dublin with Gateway Computers, over twenty years ago. Indeed, a lot can change in two decades. Tony fondly recalls his times working across Europe for various firms, all with intertwining themes. “I was a Vice President of AOL UK, and the Managing Director of AOL Europe Operations Ltd. That was during the infancy of the internet and broadband in Europe, so I spearheaded that,” says Tony.

             Years later, the internet has become a staple part of modern life. It is no surprise that Tony continued spearheading telecoms and broadband: after AOL, Tony joined o2 Ireland, where he adopted a number of roles including CEO of o2 in Ireland, CCO of o2 Germany, and Consumer Director in o2 Czech Republic. “I love travelling, I love working in different cultures. It is character building, it’s a real experience. It’s challenging as well, even linguistically – Czech is a difficult language to speak, and everyone will tell you that,” says Tony. “It’s no inconvenience to live in Prague or Munich, they’re all great places – but I’m happy to be home in Ireland. It was never an inconvenience for me, because they were great jobs in great places, and I enjoyed them a lot.”

                  Across the island of Ireland, superfast broadband can often be a rare possession. Ireland is, of course, dominated by rural areas outside of the two main cities. Although this may guarantee great scenery, it also incurs problems when it comes to surfing the web. “We do realise that we are a rural population, in comparison with many of the countries of Western Europe. No commercial enterprise will enter isolated areas, as it simply isn’t viable. The costs are high,” says Tony. “We feel that we can connect much more people to the Virgin Media network – but to connect everybody, we need some degree of intervention. We are happy enough to paddle our own canoe when it comes to superfast broadband, but that’s not the start and end of it. There’s a lot more to do,” he continues. However, consumers across Northern Ireland may not have to wait much longer, according to the CEO. “If you look at the proportionate investment in Northern Ireland, it’s highly significant. If you call a spade a spade, broadband has been pretty poor – reports say that the average broadband speed in the North is under 25Mbps. Our lowest tier package is 100Mbps, and in reality most people would be connecting at around 300Mbps. We are saying we are faster, but I don’t think people realise how much faster we really are – up to ten times faster than the average!”

                     When it comes to consumer demands for ultrafast broadband in rural areas, none are best placed to comment than Virgin Media’s Tony Hanway. “I get letters sometimes, saying “when on earth is Virgin Media coming to town?”. It’s a great letter to get, but it can of course get a little bit frustrating - because you can’t connect everybody,” says Tony. With Project Lightning, however, there is cause to be optimistic: “This is a feel-good announcement, because we are expanding and connecting even more people. It makes a huge difference when you have decent broadband”. Hanway is confident that Project Lightning is only the start of good things in Ireland: “This isn’t capped at 350Mb - there is a 1 GB potential here. I’d like to think that this is future-proof for a significant amount of time – this is as future-proof as broadband can get. So, it’s ironic – some of the people who waited the longest for decent broadband are now getting the absolute best that we have to offer,” he says.

                 The question is, how do Virgin Media find out where people need them the most? The answer is held in the website’s handy “Cable my Street” feature, which allows those in need of faster broadband to register their interest with the company. “If we get enough interest, we know there is a cluster or concentration that makes it viable for us to go to that area. Over the years, we have connected many, many names. We are always looking for ways to reach out to new segments, and that’s just one way to do it,” says Hanway. “Increasingly, people are realising that the demand for fast broadband is insatiable. The average house has ten devices, and if that’s just the average, we can assume that that number may in some cases rise to 15, or maybe even 20. You can have five or six TV experiences under one roof, while one person may have a tablet on their lap, and a phone in their hand at the same time. You need great broadband, you need uncontended bandwidth.”

                   The task behind Project Lightning should not be underestimated: connecting 4 million homes across the country is no easy feat. When it comes to getting the job done, Tony insists that such a task requires cooperation from wider society. “There are a lot of factors and circumstances outside of our control. We need permission from authorities to open roads and pavements, local councils are very important, particularly their engineering departments – and then there’s the necessary permission to cross properties and cross streets,” says Tony. “This can’t be done in isolation by us. It requires a huge amount of cooperation from local authorities, and I’m happy to say that in most cases, we get that. Politicians would be the first to tell you that their constituents come to them with grievances about their poor quality broadband. We are in a good place now, because politicians are actually pushing to reduce barriers to broadband. It’s not always seamless, but everybody knows that we need better broadband. Councils depend on rates, and businesses prospering. So when you think about it, there is more money as a result of that to fund public services. This is a win/win situation for everyone.”

                With such a large project must come a matching campaign of public awareness - and Richard Branson’s firm is a master of its trade. Tony shares with us some of the tactics behind promoting Project Lightning: “We are promoting Project Lightning through a combination of methods. So, we have TV, press, outdoor, and plenty of social media. We depend on a lot of word of mouth as well; word spread fasts in a connected world. Cable My Street is so important for signalling where we go next – people will be seeing a lot more of Virgin Media in the future.”

                  Project Lightning isn’t, however, the only announcement that has Virgin Media excited. The firm are of course launching their shiny new V6 entertainment box. The V6 model is the smallest, fastest box released by the firm – but don’t be fooled by its small size. “I’m happy to say that the UK is the first country the V6 will be deployed in. It meets peoples’ modern day lifestyles – stream more, record more, less delayed reactions. It really is breaking new ground for us,” says Tony. “But, we’ve always had really good hardware, but with more and more people using the internet, you have to update that with solid and functional hardware. Not only is ultrafast broadband important – great hardware is essential. Let’ not forget that people don’t really refer to it as broadband these days – they call it Wi-Fi. People now look at it as a virtual product that fills every corner of the house, and that wasn’t the case five years ago.”

                Ultrafast broadband isn’t the only positive that Virgin Media are providing its Irish customers with. The firm has a notably successful graduate program, well-known for its large number of applicants. Luckily, the CEO of Virgin Media Ireland gave Sync NI a few tips for young people and graduates seeking a future with the firm. “We are looking for people who are open, versatile, keen to learn, and that they can bring their own knowledge and experiences to the business. We acknowledge that we have a lot to learn from the millennial generation,” says Tony. “Let’s face it, a lot of senior management aren’t in their twenties, so there’s a lot we can learn from younger staff. We can provide people with really great learning experiences, but we hope they can bring their own ingenuity to the table. Virgin stands for energy, passion, innovation and disruption – we look for people who can match those brand attributes. We get a great buzz from an injection of youth.”


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