As an integral part of our daily experience, it’s difficult to imagine a time where we lived without wifi.
"Access to fast, efficient broadband used to be a novelty, now it's a given," says Patrick Cotter, chief executive of FleetConnect. "In 2018, people expect wifi to be abundant and excellent.
“Remember when it didn’t exist in hotel lobbies? That was just 12 years ago. I was working as an IT consultant and we brought new technologies to the hospitality industry, successfully launching wifi in a number of five-star hotels. It was the beginning of my wifi endeavours.”
Things moved quickly from there. In 2008, Cotter was on a train to Cork and wanted to work online. “I had a dongle but didn’t get a signal and recognised instantly that there was a market for decent wifi in motion. He launched FleetConnect in Blanchardstown shortly afterwards.
Providing passenger wifi services for major transport companies including Bus Éireann, Irish Rail, Translink, Aircoach and Go Bus, the company’s services are also available on cargo ships in the North Sea and Greyhound buses in the United States. FleetConnect won best start-up at the National Enterprise Awards and the Fingal Enterprise Award in 2011.
Ben Dunne, who was on the judging panel was so impressed by Cotter, he claimed he had "star quality", and should be "a leading figure in Irish business".
In its first year, FleetConnect had a turnover of more than €1 million. Fast forward 10 years and it’s now the biggest rail and bus wifi network in Ireland, with more than five million unique users per month and over half a billion users in total since inception.
“The company uses a rental business model, whereby bus operators rent the company’s wifi-enabled equipment. This guarantees recurring revenues for the company in addition to an initial installation fee.”
Not wanting to rest on his broadband laurels, Cotter embraced the ever-changing wifi landscape, and expanded his profile to include various services for retail and hospitality businesses.
Captini Wifi, which was launched in 2014, offers a wifi service for restaurants and hotels with an integrated social media profiling system while iCharge, a secure box which can charge up to four phones at any one time, is being used across pubs and restaurants in Ireland, Britain, Spain and elsewhere in mainland Europe.
In 2015, Cotter recognised that there was a market for rural wifi in Ireland after he had difficulty accessing wifi in his new home, just 20 minutes outside Dublin.
“I couldn’t believe that wifi was so appalling so close to an urban hub,” he said.
He decided to investigate options and his team of 35 used their experience from FleetConnect to create Rural Wifi using external booster antennas “so we could offer more integrated solutions with both external and internal boosting options”, he says.
"In 2012, the Government launched the National Broadband Plan to bring high-speed internet services to all businesses and households in Ireland – offering a minimum speed of 30Mbps download and 6Mbps upload – yet none of this has occurred," Cotter notes. "More than 500,000 homes and businesses still don't have decent wifi. This is not acceptable."
When various potential bidders pulled out of the tendering process for the National Broadband Plan (NBP), hopes for large parts of Ireland with little or no broadband services were dashed yet again.
“But our rural wifi service can help. People across rural Ireland have been subject to a series of empty promises. The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment says getting wifi to rural areas is a ‘complex process,’” he says. “Foundations have to be laid and the infrastructure needs to be put in place, so it’s expensive, costing up to €15,000 per house. It’s not worth their while if they just get €49 a month from customers.”
A slew of potential partners pulled out of the NBP process, with Eir withdrawing earlier this year and Siro, a joint venture between Vodafone and the ESB, walked away from the process subsequently.
‘I’m not afraid to put my neck on the line. I promised people that if they don’t get a decent connection, we will tear up their contracts and they will get their money back,” he adds.
The phones have been hopping. “We’re looking to recruit between five and 10 more people to add to our team, just to deal with installation requests.”
The company signed up about 3,000 customers to Rural Wifi by August and Cotter believes he can get 50,000 by the end of the year.
“The beauty with Rural Wifi is that you don’t need a fixed landline. Our customers can order pre-configured, easy to install routers and booster omnidirectional antennas that we developed, offering double the speeds and signal strength. We have customers who were getting 1MB with fixed line and can now hook up their smart TV and Xbox without any problems.”
Cotter says the company can deliver anywhere in 24 hours, be it Aran Islands, Valencia or Mizen Head.
“We are not the saviours but the rural wifi situation has become an ongoing joke and, by the looks of things, we’re the only company looking to help disgruntled customers who can’t download their emails.”
Cotter was in South Africa recently in the Kruger National Park and says he enjoyed better wifi than he does in Ireland.
“Wifi has become an essential part of our personal and professional day-to-day, and I’m constantly trying to improve our efficiency, our communication.”
Even though people use hotspots, Cotter insists the demand for wifi is bigger than ever. “It’s the first thing you ask for when you go to a hotel, restaurant or public place these days. Do you have wifi?”
There’s a lot still to do as huge swathes of Ireland, not just rural Ireland, have “appalling wifi”. According to a survey conducted by Switcher.ie, 67 per cent of Irish households are getting broadband speeds lower than the 30Mbs minimum standard set by the Government. “I want parks and squares across cities to have good urban wifi. That’s the next step. We’re already working on it.”
Cotter said that FleetConnect is now focusing on growing its market position in Ireland while expanding across Europe. “The first wifi arrived in 1997 but 21 years later, four billion people still don’t have access to the internet so there’s a lot to do.
“There’s always more to do. If you want to be successful, you can’t get the elevator, you have to take the stairs.”