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Anchor tenants are being sought for a £150m dual-site, cross-border datacentre in Ireland that, according to its backers, could generate thousands of jobs in the years to come.
The initiative is being spearheaded by the North West Datacentre Consortium (NWDC), which won planning permission for the build in 2011.
Its plan is to create a paired facility. Part of it will be located in Northern Ireland and linked to an adjoining site over the border in Ireland by an enclosed, overhead walkway.
Speaking on behalf of the NWDC to Computer Weekly, Michael Faulkner said the site’s location should endear it to a number of businesses looking for datacentre capacity in Ireland for economic and practical reasons.
He said that one of the location’s biggest lures is its close proximity to the Project Kelvin submarine and terrestrial fibre-optic cable that directly connects Northern Ireland with North America.
Project Kelvin was intended to make it easier for companies based in Northern Ireland to do business with the US, and was completed in 2010.
The two datacentres – one on each side of the border – are served by different power grids and covered by different tax regimes, added Faulkner. This means prospective clients can make decisions about which site to choose based on whichever tax regime works out best for them.
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With preliminary building work at the site due to start, the NWDC is in the process of engaging with the local community, councillors and business leaders to ensure they are well aware of the plans, which have been a decade in the making.
“Both governments [in Northern Ireland and Ireland] and their agencies have been very responsive, and supportive of the plans,” Faulkner said.
“We are in an area of high unemployment, with an 8.5% unemployment rate, and there is talk of making this an Enterprise Zone, which is something the local council are pushing.”
In March 2014 Coleraine was announced as the first Enterprise Zone in Northern Ireland. Enterprise Zones are designated areas designed to attract technology firms to set up shop in a certain location by providing them with a planning and tax leg-up.
Faulkner said that, even without an Enterprise Zone being in place, the NWDC is already in conversations with a number of organisations, including several from the US, about taking space in the proposed datacentre.
The EU's recent scrapping of the Safe Harbour agreement, which was used by US companies to transfer data on European citizens overseas, has played a negligible part in the discussions, Faulkner said.
“There are some conversations going on around that, but we’re trying to be agnostic to that because we’re 10 years in the ground here, and we’re not here to cash in on something that has just happened,” he said.
“This was acquired as a development site a long way in the past and it’s taken 10 years to get it to here, and we have no doubt it could take another five years to see it through to completion from where it is today.”
A decade of development
The site was originally purchased 10 years ago by a couple of the founder members of NWDC, with a view to building offices, but the fallout from the financial crisis put paid to their plans.
“We went through a very serious boom in the building industry and then a serious crash, and coming out of that in 2008/09, it wasn’t really conducive to speculatively building industrial units,” Faulkner said.
The site owners were then approached by a datacentre company interested in the site, which then started the process of seeking planning permission.
Financial difficulties resulted in the unnamed datacentre company later pulling out, but the owners decided to press on with acquiring planning permission approval regardless.
NWDC set up
This led to the creation of the NWDC in 2015, which is now in the throes of marketing the site and raising local awareness of its wider economic potential.
“The maintenance and management of the site could create another 60 to 80 highly paid technical jobs, which could create opportunities for people from Ireland who are working in the UK now in the datacentre sector and want to relocate back here,” Faulkner said.
The initial project build, a process Faulkner said could take up to two and half years, will also bring “a couple of hundred jobs” to the area. And there are plans to build a business and technology park on the rest of the site.
“If the business park takes off, that’s more of a 10-year project, but it could create anything up to 3,500 jobs,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s a symbolic thing, but it is our view that the establishment of the datacentre could act as a trigger for the rest of the development.”
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