Hi-tech hopes for a thriving financial district


BELFAST BRIEFING:PICTURE A map of Belfast 10 years in the future and what might you see? Signposts to the still “unmissable” Titanic visitor centre? Another new shopping development, a peace museum or even a world-class sports stadium? But would you expect to find a thriving financial district?

Belfast already has the New York Stock Exchange on board, and major investors such as Fidessa and Citi can testify to the fact that the city has what it takes to create a viable financial hub.

But Belfast’s political and business leaders also recognise that if it wants to lay the foundations for its very own version of Wall Street, then it has to be able to offer what other locations cannot.

Northern Ireland already has an impressive telecoms infrastructure. Not only was it the first region in Europe to have 100 per cent access to broadband, it also boasts one of the fastest connections to the United States from Europe.

According to industry experts, the North has the only cross-Atlantic connection with latency of less than 70 milliseconds and up to 1.92 terabits of capacity: in layman’s terms, it is fast – very fast and very powerful. It also has four fully fibred independently owned rings and a further five connections to the US, Europe, Britain and Ireland.

According to the North’s Minister of Enterprise, this is why geographical locations are almost “irrelevant” for a growing number of Northern-based businesses.

Arlene Foster has highlighted how high-achieving indigenous companies such as Ballynahinch-based Datum Tool Design have been able to harness Northern Ireland’s impressive telecoms infrastructure to “partner in real time” with major global corporations from Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier and Hindustan Aerospace.

According to Foster, this infrastructure can also give the North “a singular advantage when competing for foreign direct investment from global companies servicing international markets, such as Citi and New York Stock Exchange”.

It is estimated that the financial services sector in Northern Ireland employs more than 23,000 people in roughly 1,200 firms. The majority of these international companies that have invested in the North, such as Allstate Corporation, Liberty Mutual and NYSE Euronext, are based around Belfast.

But these, as far as the city’s council and investment champions are concerned, represent just a fraction of the major investment that they want.

And, thanks to a major new project, Belfast is about to become even more attractive to potential investors.

It has been selected as one of the UK’s first “Super-Connected Cities” and will receive £6 million (€7.5 million) in funding from the UK department of culture, media and sport to upgrade city-wide broadband speeds to at least 80Mbps and deliver high-speed capacity (of at least 100Mbps) to specific businesses.

This month city leaders will bid for a further £7.7 million (€9.6 million) of additional funding towards the project.

According to one telecommunications expert, Dr Sinclair Stockman, Super-Connected Belfast will “light up the city’s digital highways, ignite growth for local businesses and attract both new business investment and world-class talent to our shores”.

Belfast took the opportunity to showcase the city as a “trailblazer of technological excellence” by hosting the Eurocities Knowledge Society Forum’s summer conference last week. Eurocities is a network that brings together the local governments of more than 140 large cities in more than 30 European countries.

Delegates from across the EU heard how, when the Titanic was built in 1912, Belfast “was a highly motivated, wealthy and industrious city on the cutting edge of technology and advancement”.

According to Lord Mayor Gavin Robinson, today it is “once again a city at the forefront of innovation and change”.

Robinson believes this will help transform the local economy by “attracting businesses from across the world”.

When the Titanic set sail from Belfast 100 years ago it symbolised the city’s ambitions and reflected its strengths at that time. Part of its legacy may be a tourist attraction today but the Titanic visitor centre just also happens to be located in what is fast becoming a blossoming hi-tech and financial quarter.

The city may have radically different ambitions and strengths in 2012 but it still has the same pioneering spirit it demonstrated 100 years ago.

Perhaps a financial district might not be so far off the map in 2022.

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