C4DI Meetup - Building a legacy


Today I went along to another C4DI meetup. This one was presented by Andy Whale, who is director of engineering at Kingston Communications. For those of you unlucky enough not to live in the Hull area, you might not know that we have our own local phone company. This makes it unique in the UK.

When every other regional telephone company was wound into a nationalised service many years ago, for some strange accounting reason Hull got left out, and it has functioned independently ever since. This means that we had innovations like untimed local calls for years before anyone else, and it also means that Hull phone boxes are painted white in colour. 

Andy was talking of his trajectory from British Telecoms engineer to being the man charged with rolling out Lightstream, one of the most ambitious networking projects in the world. There is a lot of talk today about putting the awesome speed of fibre optic based networking into people’s houses, but it turns out that there are two ways to do this.  One is to run an optical fibre to a box in each street and then use wire for the last part. The other is to actually put optical fibre into the house. The first is comparatively easy. The second is much more challenging. It is also the best way and how Lightstream is being deployed.

Once you have a continuous stream of glass fibre from the exchange to the house you can unleash completely staggering amounts of bandwidth, should you ever need to. The glass fibre itself will last pretty much for ever and is not prone to degrading over time. The devices that put signals onto the fibre are improving every year so the whole thing is future proof.

Of course, the snag is that the effort to get the glass out there is considerable. Andy spoke of the difficulties in getting connections through ancient conduits and under and over roads. He also made the point that a successful engineer must also work with a certain amount of cunning and faith in themselves and their people to get the happy ending that everyone wants. KC has rolled out several thousand installations of fibre, developed new techniques, patented new technologies and changed the lives of lots computer users.

The legacy that Andy is building will keep on changing lives for as long as we keep on thinking of new ways to use the highly reliable, expandable performance of the network infrastructure that is being put in place. I feel proud of being in a city where this is happening.

Before Andy left British Telecom he was assailed with warnings of how this kind of widespread optical fibre deployment was impossible and probably unnecessary. And now it is here, he is making it work and people are loving it. One person at the meeting made the point that if they could bring bandwidth like this to his premises, he would move his business to Hull to take advantage of it. The question on everyone’s lips (mine included) was “When can I get Lightstream to my house?”.


Andy brought along some props, including old style cabling. This is how it used to be.


This is where it is going. Still coloured connections, but with thousands, perhaps millions of times the capacity.

The government is pumping money into banks to try and get the economy going. This would seem to be changing the lives of a few bankers, making them slightly richer. Also some house prices in Surrey are going up a bit. It makes me really cross to think that projects like this are not being funded and rolled out everywhere in the UK. This is life changing technology which will be used well into the future and bring about things we can’t even imagine just now.

Andy and his team have shown that it can be done. Thanks to him for great talk that really brought out how engineers can directly change lives.