Mairead Meyer: ‘With my boiler suit and steel toe caps, I was the only girl in the training school and it was amazing’
Room with a view: Mairead Meyer at her work in BT Mairead Meyer heading out to the field Mairead Meyer at baby Eoin’s christening with husband Eugene
When Mairead Meyer kicked off her career in engineering, she was the only woman among almost 100 trainees at the Gallaher’s factory in Ballymena. Now, she heads up telecoms giant BT in Northern Ireland — a company which she’s spent the bulk of her working life with.
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The 36-year-old Co Londonderry woman began her top role as managing director of networks in Northern Ireland, in August last year. That followed a break of around two years away in South Africa on sabbatical, during which she also gave birth to her baby boy, Eoin.
She’s now responsible for a team of around 850 engineers, connecting the exchange right out to the customer’s house or business.
“We (Northern Ireland) benchmark very well, across the UK, and throughout the rest of Europe,” she said.
“I think we have a unique problem in Northern Ireland, because we have a higher proportion of people living in rural communities, so our line length is much longer than elsewhere in the UK.
“But it is something that BT and government have invested in heavily, going back to 2008 and 2009. And that has kept us high up in terms of our digital connectivity ratings.”
She said the next step for Northern Ireland is expanding its “ultra-fast” broadband network across the province. That could see homes here having access to 100mb speeds. Around 92% of homes in Northern Ireland can access 10mb broadband, while there are around 40,000 to 50,000 homes left with speeds of around 2mb or less.
Mairead said she would look to the next Programme for Government (PfG), for further investment, particularly in providing connectivity for rural homes and businesses. And speaking about Stormont’s collapse and next week’s snap election, she said: “We definitely are in a period of uncertainty at the minute. I really do hope we see a workable government at Stormont in the next few months that allows us to progress the PfG, key infrastructure.”
“I don’t think any of us want to be going in to a long period of uncertainty. Second elections, direct rule … we want to know what’s happening.”
BT now employs around 5,000 workers in Northern Ireland alone, including those supporting work in Great Britain.
And in the last year, it’s taken on around 80 new engineers, with plans to further expand the workforce in 2017. BT says it has added ?470m to the Northern Ireland economy, and across the UK has invested ?2.6bn in research and development over the last five years. Mairead hails from Slaughtneil — best known for its GAA club’s wins in camogie, football and hurling — outside Maghera.
“It’s quite a small rural community. I grew up there, attended St Patrick’s College in Maghera, and decided to take up engineering when I was doing my A-levels,” she said.
She went on to study electronic engineering at Queen’s University. “At that point, Nortel were investing massively in Northern Ireland … (companies had said) that there weren’t going to be enough engineers coming out of universities to fill all the jobs.
“So there was a sponsorship to encourage people to do engineering across Gallaher’s, Nortel and Wrightbus. And I was lucky enough to get one of the sponsorships.”
It was there she secured her sponsorship at Ballymena cigarette maker Gallaher’s, where she spent a year, before beginning her degree. And it was during her time at the factory that she met her future husband, Eugene — who is originally from Cape Town in South Africa.
“Everyone expects us to have met in a really exotic location, but we met in Ballymena,” she said.
“(Gallaher’s) was a mixture of everything. They took me along with their apprentices that they had recruited in that year.
“I was the only girl in the training school — with my boiler suit and steel toe caps.
“That was a really good learning experience,” she said. “It was absolutely amazing.”
Following her time at Queen’s, Mairead began looking for long-term work, and in 2004 started her career with BT. And that year was a busy one for the BT boss, who finished her final exams, joined the company — her first full-time position — and got married, in the space of four months.
“I was looking at how the new network was going to evolve, and what the network technology was going to be,” she said.
“That was the very early days of broadband. So it was a really good foundation to have across the business.”
She then moved on to management of the core network in Northern Ireland, and also worked in other roles in Dublin.
“It was a really great experience across the technical side of it. Probably after doing that for around four or five years, I had a team of about 300 or 400 across the island.
“My boss asked me how I would feel about moving back up north, and taking on the engineering teams — looking at the exchange, and right out to the customer premises.
“It was much more about managing a big team of people. I think it was one of the best roles I did in the end.”
And it was a busy time for BT, which included the rolling out of fibre-optic broadband across Northern Ireland. Mairead then became director of solutions for BT Ireland, a role which looked at corporate customers across Northern Ireland and the Republic.
But the rise up through the BT ranks was put on hold for a time, with a move to South Africa in 2014.
“BT were brilliant, and gave me the time off. I was out there for two years. It was an amazing experience,” she said. “It was really weird, and probably took me a good four or five months to make me realise I wasn’t working, or busy all the time.”
During her time away she studied philosophy, and a number of finance courses. However, she returned last year, flying in to London from Cape Town to interview for her current top BT role in Northern Ireland. Her husband Eugene is an accountant by trade, and formerly worked with PwC in Capetown.
And he’s currently on paternity leave, looking after little 11-month-old Eoin at their Belfast home.
“It’s definitely not a nine to five job … it is quite an operational role,” she said. Mairead is the eldest in a family of five, including three sisters — each of whom have moved into a range of different roles, including business, teaching and dentistry. Her father Thomas is a farmer, and mother Marie, a teacher.
“We are all quite close and I’m the only one not living in the area,” she said.
A keen traveller, she’s also big in to sport, and played camogie for Slaughtneil in her teens.
“I also love reading. That’s my time to switch the brain off, and relax,” she said.
“I love any good story. I love reading anything, particularly around the First and Second World Wars — how people lived their lives.”
On Brexit, Mairead says she hopes there will be a positive outcome, allowing the UK to continue working with the EU. And the free movement of workers between Northern Ireland and the Republic is key, she says.
“From a local level, we would like to hope people would be able to move between north and south for work,” she said.
And looking forward, she said there will be a move to further increase connection speeds and broadband connectivity, over the next four or five years.
“Everything is coming together between the fixed network, television, mobility and all of that,” she said.
- Next week we speak to Chris McCann, director at Co Londonderry concrete and engineering firm FP McCann
While it might be true that nobody yet “needs” a gigabit connection, that doesn’t mean there’s not some significant benefits in deploying such services. We’ve noted a few times how simply advertising such speeds is beneficial for ISPs, as it drives users (many of whom have no idea what speed they subscribe to) to call in and upgrade1. But a new study by the Fiber to the Home Council2 (pdf) highlights another major benefit of gigabit deployments: it reduces the overall price of service in markets where it’s deployed.
The report found that the presence of gigabit service in a market resulted in a $27 per month decrease in the average monthly price of broadband service at speeds between 100 Mbps and 1 Gbps. That’s roughly a 25% over the usual cost of service. The study predicts a price reduction between $13 and $18 per month for plans starting at 25 Mbps and up, or a 14 to 19% reduction in the cost of service. The more competitors the better the results, the report noting that the standard monthly price for gigabit internet declines between 34 and 37 percent ($57 to $62) when there’s more than one gigabit ISP. That’s been abundantly clear in AT&T’s response to Google Fiber3.
In Google Fiber markets, AT&T’s gigabit broadband service has been anywhere up to $50 less per month than in non Google Fiber markets.
The group found that not only did prices drop, this competition encourages broader deployment of broadband upgrades.
“We find that each additional competitor offering broadband in a higher speed category will increase the probability that other broadband providers in the market will offer broadband at those higher speeds by 4 to 17 percent on an annual basis,” the study said.
We’ve noted how the FCC’s latest net neutrality rules do a lot of things right, but they failed to seriously address zero rating or broadband usage caps, opening the door to ISPs violently abusing net neutrality — just as long as they’re relatively clever about it. And plenty of companies have been walking right through that open door. Both Verizon and Comcast for example now exempt their own streaming services from these caps, giving them an unfair leg up in the marketplace. AT&T meanwhile is now using usage caps to force customers to subscribe to TV services if they want to enjoy unlimited data.
In each instance you’ve got companies using usage caps for clear anti-competitive advantage, while industry-associated think tanks push misleading studies5 and news outlet editorials claiming that zero rating’s a great boon to consumers and innovation alike. The FCC’s net neutrality rules don’t ban usage caps or zero rating, unlike rules in Chile, Slovenia, Japan, India, Norway and The Netherlands. The FCC did however state that the agency would examine such practices on a “case by case” basis under the “general conduct” portion of the rules. But so far, that has consisted of closed door meetings and a casual, informal letter6 sent to a handful of carriers as part of what the FCC says is an “information exercise,” not a formal inquiry. But in a letter sent to FCC Commissioners7 (pdf) this week, a coalition of companies including Yelp, Vimeo, Foursquare, Kickstarter, Medium, Mozilla and Reddit have urged the agency to launch a more formal — but also transparent — probe of ISP behavior on this front:
“Zero rating profoundly affects Internet users’ choices. Giving ISPs the power to favor some sites or services over others would let ISPs pick winners and losers online precisely what the Open Internet rules exist to prevent…Given how many stakeholders participated in the process to make these rules, including nearly 4 million members of the public, it would be unacceptable not to seek and incorporate broad input and expertise at this critical stage.”
Given the FCC’s decision to ban usage caps at Charter as a merger condition, the agency is clearly aware of the threat zero rating and caps pose to a healthy Internet.
It’s possible the FCC is waiting for the courts to settle the broadband industry’s lawsuit against the FCC, which could gut some or all of the net neutrality rules. But it’s also entirely possible that the FCC does nothing. Usage caps are a glorified price hike, and even in its latest more consumer friendly iteration, the FCC has historically been afraid to so much as even acknowledge high prices are a problem in the sector.
Things have been muddied further by T-Mobile’s Binge On program, which gives users the illusion of “free data” by setting arbitrary usage caps, then exempting10 the biggest video services from usage caps. And while many consumers applaud the idea, even T-Mobile’s implementation sets a potentially dangerous precedent in that it fails to whitelist smaller video providers and non-profits — most of which have no idea they’re even being discriminated against. There’s a contingent at the FCC and elsewhere that believes efforts like this are a positive example of “creative pricing experimentation.” Either way it’s increasingly clear that the FCC needs to take some public position on the subject as ISPs continue to test the agency’s murky boundaries to the detriment of users and small companies alike. Should the FCC win its court case, pressure will grow exponentially for the FCC to actually put its money where its mouth is — and put the rules so many people fought for to actual use.
- ^ relatively clever about it (www.techdirt.com)
- ^ Verizon (www.techdirt.com)
- ^ Comcast (www.techdirt.com)
- ^ force customers (www.techdirt.com)
- ^ push misleading studies (www.techdirt.com)
- ^ casual, informal letter (www.dslreports.com)
- ^ a letter sent to FCC Commissioners (assets.documentcloud.org)
- ^ ban usage caps at Charter (www.techdirt.com)
- ^ lawsuit (www.techdirt.com)
- ^ exempting (www.techdirt.com)