Deryck Fay's Connecting A Nation: the story of telecommunications in Ireland – which has recently been published by UCD Press – he tells the story of cables, exchanges, SIM cards and broadband, and how telecommunications has played a pivotal role in the development of the country from 1852 to the present day. This is the second and final extract. Part I can be read here.

The Irish telecommunications network was in a state of crisis in 1979. A total of 94,000 people were waiting, some of them for years, just to get a phone line installed. 

Map of manual exchange areas in December 1980. Despite the huge level of investment, the planned date of 1984 was not met and it took until 1987 for manual switching to be eliminated

Ninety years after Almon Strowger had invented the automatic exchange, almost half of the telephone exchanges in the state were still manual. And for those lucky enough to have a phone on an automatic exchange, the chance of getting through first time on a trunk call was about one in three – if it rained they were lucky to have any service at all.

The crisis in the state’s telecoms network, its full horror exposed in the Dargan Report, led to two critical government decisions that year. The first of these was the approval of a £650m (about the equivalent of €825m) five-year Accelerated Development Programme (ADP).

This was an enormous amount for the early 1980s, equivalent to 2% of GNP during a period largely marked by austerity. Indeed, the £235m (€298m) spent in the single financial year 1980/1 exceeded the total amount spent on the telecoms network over the entire 58-year period since 1922.

The other key decision was to take the country’s troublesome telecommunications service out of the clutches of the civil service and move it to a new semi-state body solely responsible for telecoms.

During the early 1980s, newspapers made considerable revenue from businesses forced to notify their prospective customers of their telephone woes, sometimes with inventive promises

As a first step, in November 1979, the government created a new interim body to plan this transition. An Bord Telecom, as the temporary entity was called, was rather toothless, with the telecoms budget and staff still controlled by the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. But the appointment of Michael Smurfit as chairperson lent it a higher profile than suggested by its actual powers

Smurfit was – and still is – seen as one of Ireland’s most successful businessmen: in 1979 his company had 100 paper and packaging plants dotted across the world.

His appointment was an attempt to bring business acumen to a service that severely lacked it and Smurfit was happy to be the public face of telecommunications, including making the call from the state’s last manual switchboard at Mountshannon, Co Clare. That in itself was a radical departure for a service traditionally viewed as being run by anonymous functionaries. 

A fibre-optic cable allows transmission of large volumes of data, including phone conversations, by light, typically generated by a laser. The light rays are reflected within the fibre, even following it around corners. Image: Steven Mellema via CC BY 4.0

Soon after becoming chair of An Bord Telecom, Smurfit went on a ‘mystery shopper’ exercise. In his 2014 autobiography he describes how he walked into the P&T public office on Marlborough Street in Dublin, completed a form to apply for a telephone line and handed it to the clerk behind the counter, who didn’t look at it, or appear to recognise the man standing in front of him.

When Smurfit asked him what he did with completed forms, the clerk replied unambiguously, "It's none of your f*****g business." Rather than taking offence, Smurfit was sympathetic, blaming such attitudes on the choking bureaucracy that staff had inherited from the civil service.

Smurfit described the staff as demotivated and undervalued, "ashamed to tell anyone where they worked, because they knew what they would get: 'You work for the telephone company? Jesus Christ! Where’s my phone?'".

Smurfit wasn’t exaggerating. Isolde Goggin recalls that her father, a telephone technician, instructed his family never to tell anyone that he worked for P&T lest they be plagued with demands to be pushed up the waiting list. 

With time-division multiplexing (TDM), time on the common channel, such as a single submarine cable, is shared among many data sources. Initially used to allow multiple telegraph operators to share a single circuit, TDM was to become a cornerstone of digital communications

She herself won a student engineer scholarship from P&T in 1977, studying in Trinity before joining an old-fashioned organisation where engineers were served cups of tea by more junior civil servants. Her arrival was heralded in the staff newspaper, PagusT, by the headline ‘At last a woman engineer’.

Smurfit must have winced at a story in the Irish Times in 1983, when a businessman told the paper about how he had bribed a P&T technician to fix his phone line. He was £50 (€63) down but his single phone line was restored to life after being dead for three weeks. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that faults took so long to be repaired for, in the same article, a mother described her son’s ‘working’ day since joining P&T. After a leisurely breakfast each morning:

"the crew driver … and the foreman then study form in the newspaper and then it’s dinner time. By the time the money is put on the gee-gees and the results discussed it is time to go home often as early as 3.30pm."

Annual capital expenditure on telephones. The massive increase in 1980, and decline in the late 80s and early 90s are all clearly evident

The poor attitudes and morale among some of the staff were not surprising. Industrial relations had been toxic within the Department of Posts and Telegraphs and the relationship with customers was antagonistic.

Sheer frustration led to one Dublin travel agent placing an advertisement in the Irish Times in 1984. Addressed to the CEO of the state-owned telco, it offered a free holiday in Crete in exchange for a guarantee that their phones would work for at least one week.

Not only were staff involved in conflicts with subscribers who were waiting years for a phone line or months for a fault to be repaired, they were also engaged in constant disputes about money, in the form of a myriad of complaints about telephone bills. Subscribers did not trust their bills and, by extension, the entire department. It was no wonder that staff were afraid to tell people where they worked. 

Installation of two telephone kiosks

The system was completely broken. Fixing it would be an enormous task, requiring not only the huge investment promised by the £650m ADP but also a complete change in the mindsets of staff, politicians and the long-suffering customer. But it had to be done.

Since the foundation of the state, successive governments neglected telecommunications such that the country was put in the "position of dray-horses as against race-horses" as warned about by minister JJ Walsh in 1923.

By the 1970s it was obvious to everyone that the condition of the country’s telecoms network was a huge barrier to economic development. Ireland was competing in a race with other countries for foreign investment but it was way down the field, overtaken by sleek thoroughbreds with modern infrastructure.

Finally, 56 years later, the state had taken decisive action to allow it to compete with "up-to-date countries" in this race for economic development.

The following 20 years from 1979 to 1999 were the period of greatest change to the telecommunications network in the country’s history. If we picture the period as a 20-year race between the telecoms networks of different countries, Ireland ran amazingly well for 14 years, coming from way behind to catch up and even outrun the other countries.

Unfortunately, however, Ireland became distracted, lost much of its lead and finished somewhere in the middle of the field. The exception was in the mobile phone race, which is a story unto itself. 

Operators on the Exchequer Street exchange

The early part of the race was simply spent catching up with the other horses. There was an awful lot of ground to make up. The waiting list needed to be cleared, ancient equipment replaced and the network completely automated.

There were also the thorny problems of mending staff relations and building up trust with customers. All of this required making important and sometimes difficult decisions. But, remarkably in view of the previous 56 years, Ireland actually caught up and, for a time, outpaced the field.

The performance of Ireland during the first five years of this telecoms race from 1980 to 1985 was massively boosted by the aforementioned ADP.

Probably the most important improvement brought about by this investment was the virtual elimination of the waiting list for phones, though this was definitely an uphill race.

The number of people waiting for a line remained stubbornly high, largely due to the high demand for new phone lines. This demand continued in spite of P&T resorting to the old trick of jacking up the payment required before installation.

In 1982 an applicant located more than three miles from the exchange faced a bill of £980 (€1,244) merely to have a line installed. While the waiting list proved particularly slow to clear in Dublin due to problems securing suitable locations for new exchanges, it was no longer necessary to relieve a telephone engineer’s toothache in order to get a phone installed.

A far-reaching technical decision was taken at the start of the ADP, one that was to give Ireland a huge advantage in the race: the new telecommunications infrastructure would be digital. Digital technology means that information – such as a human voice – is encoded in binary format as a series of zeroes and ones.

As a result, multiple subscriber calls can be transmitted over the same transmission medium, allowing for much greater capacity. In his autobiography, Michael Smurfit describes persuading An Bord Telecom to change tack and replace orders for further crossbar equipment with ones for digital.

This was somewhat fanciful as the decision to go digital predated Smurfit’s arrival by a year but, regardless of who was responsible, the selection of digital technology quickly proved to be the correct one.

Within a few years of the decision in Ireland, countries all over the world were going digital too, sometimes ditching relatively new crossbar equipment. For example, the step-by-step exchange in Sligo town was replaced with a digital exchange in 1983.

Three months later, 70 km across the border, the step-by-step exchange in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, was also replaced – with an electro-mechanical crossbar exchange, which was itself replaced within seven years.

The days of southerners looking longingly across the border at the better planned and more modern telephone network up north were over. The decision to go digital allowed Ireland to move right up the field by effectively leapfrogging a generation in telephone technology.

With the selection of digital technology made, the next move was to decide on who was to supply the equipment. In another wise move, the department decided not to put all its eggs in one basket but to standardise on two exchange types: Alcatel’s E10 and Ericsson’s AXE.

The choice of Ericsson was not unexpected; the Swedish telecoms giant had been a supplier to the P&T since the Economic War in the 1930s and had signed a bulk supply agreement in 1972. The selection of French-owned Alcatel was a departure but one with good reason.

In France, throughout the 1950s and '60s, the telecommunications system had a similar reputation to that in Ireland. By the 1970s these deficiencies had become a liability for the French government, which embarked on a massive telecoms investment programme.

With traditional Gallic statist chauvinism, the programme used almost exclusively French equipment suppliers including Alcatel, which had pioneered digital exchanges based on time-division multiplexing (TDM), a concept first used on the telegraph network.

The plan proved a remarkable success, with the number of telephone lines in France doubling in the four years from 1975 to 1979. The success of this French programme, and the technology it used, was studied back in Dublin. A soft loan from the French treasury and an offer of technical assistance sealed the Alcatel deal.

Ireland’s first digital exchange went live on December 4, 1981, in Athlone. Appropriately for the location, it was an Ericsson AXE, partly built at the company’s plant in the town. The first Alcatel E10 went live in Kells, Co Meath, five days later. 

The importance of the Alcatel deal to France was demonstrated when the later official opening was attended by the French post and telecoms minister Louis Mexandeau, together with 35 French officials and journalists, as well as the Irish minister.

To streamline installation, mini-exchanges called Remote Subscriber Units were fitted in containers complete with batteries and wiring, ready for installation at smaller locations. As a result, a slew of digital exchanges opened over the following years and manual switching was finally eliminated.

Equally important were the wholesale additions of new lines to link the new exchanges to homes and businesses. From 1982 fibre-optic cables were deployed to link exchanges together.

Fibre-optic cables are comprised of a strand of glass just slightly thicker than a human hair, along which light is transmitted, allowing transmission of more bandwidth over longer distances than copper cables. By 1993, 70% of the transmission capacity comprised of fibre-optics.

Meanwhile existing microwave and coaxial links were upgraded to digital transmission, greatly increasing their capacity. This wasn’t the traditional P&T pattern of make-do-and-mend, of adding a few lines here and an extra switchboard there.

Ireland was no longer just catching up but was racing ahead. 

Author: Deryck Fay. (Part I can be read here.)