LightSpeed Broadband – Delivering Digital Equality
LightSpeed Broadband is working to ensure that ultrafast internet access is not the exclusive province of big cities.
From its very beginning, LightSpeed Broadband was a company with a mission- to contribute to digital equality in Britain by unlocking the country’s full digital potential. It is contributing to this goal by serving as a full-fibre internet service provider to communities across the East of England. It is what is called an altnet provider, in that it provides an alternative broadband network to the one provided by companies such as Openreach or Virgin, offering services to underserved communities that are over 20 times faster than the existing services provided.
“The existing service is usually fibre to a cabinet at the end of the street, where the service is then provided over copper at 50 megabytes,” says Steve Haines, Deputy Chairman of LightSpeed Broadband. “What we provide is gigabit speeds, 20 times faster.”
That speed is more critical than it has ever been before.
“High-speed fibre is now an essential utility that everyone relies on because of the way we now work today,” Haines tells us. “The pandemic, in particular, has impacted the way we work from home.”
However, Haines insists that LightSpeed’s business is not just about providing fibre. It is about providing the entire customer experience.
“It is about the complete experience in the home with your Wi-Fi. Every part of your home, the bedroom, the kitchen, in your garden shed, wherever you are you can still get that high-speed internet experience,” Haines says. “You can watch anything from anywhere from any device in your home. Bringing that complete end-to-end customer experience is the thing that LightSpeed brings to the communities we serve.”
LightSpeed Broadband has chosen trusted partners to provide the technology for its efforts, working with industry leaders such as SalesForce, Depotnet and Jorvik Design Group, Mills, Prysmian and Nokia as a prime technology partner. Haines adds, “Viavi Solutions have worked collaboratively with us to provide and help set up monitoring systems that ensure our network is running efficiently and always providing the best possible customer experience.”
“It is Nokia’s equipment we are using in the telephone exchange. From end-to-end, we are using the best technology available and a very high-quality network,” Haines points out. . “As the largest privately-owned supplier of digital infrastructure, Mills are the ideal partner for LightSpeed, providing exceptional service and a ‘one-stop shop’ for digital infrastructure requirements. We want to build a robust and reliable network for the future, so we have chosen Prysmian fibre optic and connectivity equipment because they use leading-edge technology to create first-class quality products.”
LightSpeed backs up that technological capability with the best service it can provide.
“We provide an online service as well as a local call centre in the region to look after that vital customer experience,” Haines explains. “Customers can carry everything out as a digital end-to-end journey, but we also have local centres to serve our customers.”
Digital Equality for All
But what does digital equality mean? Why is it so important?
“Digital equality is very important for the community. It is a core policy of the UK government to level up the whole of the UK to make sure everybody has access to the gigabit services across the whole of the country,” Haines says. “The reason that is important is that people need access to modern communications. A good example is the way the pandemic required people to have the ability to work from home and use all the rich tools that are available, such as this very video call.”
But as Haines tells us, in the 2020s one video call at a time simply is not enough.
“Children need it for schooling, there may be a working couple in a family, so having that digital access and that equality across the country means that nobody is discriminated against because of where they live,” he says. “We will bring that service not just to big cities but market towns, and eventually villages as well. It is important nobody is disadvantaged by their postcode.”
Currently, market towns across the East of England are the frontier LightSpeed is expanding into. The company is building out to 32 market towns in Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire, and Rutland, with populations averaging around 15,000 homes but without the high-speed broadband infrastructure to effectively serve them.
The plan is to cover 200,000 homes over the next 12 months, on top of the 50,000 homes, LightSpeed has reached so far in only a year.
“Our real purpose is to empower these communities to reach their full potential through this digital communication,” Haines says.
While LightSpeed has noble goals, from the start it has faced obstacles in achieving them, as a brand-new company that is relatively late to the broadband market, arriving in the middle of a pandemic, it has been quite the journey.
“So, the first challenge was to get investment. Fortunately, enough we had great investors including AtmosClear Investments and Kompass Kapital. Then subsequently we have had further funding from Sequoia Capital,” recalls Haines. “The second challenge was turning money into resources, bringing people on board. We went on a big recruitment campaign and built up our leadership team and delivery teams to a point where we are employing over 120 people, over half of them locally. We created a service centre and a network operations centre in the heart of our region.”
All of this was done under the conditions of Britain’s first and most stringent lockdown.
“We bootstrapped a new business in a pandemic, so we did everything virtually,” Haines tells us. “We’re living proof that businesses can use the technology, and the network to create value and serve the communities.”
The Lightspeed Way
LightSpeed Broadband has been able to do this because even as it has been working remotely, the firm has quickly established a firm, and unifying culture throughout the business.
“One of our aims from the beginning was to not only create a high impact team but to empower them to make decisions in the interests of customers and the business,” Haines says. “We have not been frightened of making mistakes. We have no blame culture. We enable people and give them the resources to deliver against the business plan. We captured it in what we call the Lightspeed Way. Creating a positive, empowered workforce is very important when starting up a business, and we are really pleased we’ve been able to manage that.”
Another facet of the LightSpeed way has been a foundational commitment to environmental sustainability.
“The way we are building the network, we are not trying to dig up roads. We are trying to reuse existing telephone exchanges, telegraph poles, existing power sources and green energy, wherever we can” Haines explains. “Our principle from day one was to do this in the most environmentally conscious way we can, with a high degree of health and safety as a non-negotiable method of working.”
Networking the Networks
LightSpeed Broadband has been making astounding progress, connecting the East of England, but what is interesting is what is going to happen when it has achieved that goal.
“There are several companies like LightSpeed and while we can all grow organically by building our own networks, at some point in the next 12-18 months there needs to be a coming together of companies like us,” Haines says. “If our mission is to be high quality, regional player that provides continuous service in the East of England, there will be players like us in the West of England, the Midlands, up North. So, I foresee more collaboration between altnets in different regions to scale up towards a kind of national network.”
It could start with strategic partnerships, mergers, and acquisitions. Haines compares it to the consolidation of the cable TV franchises 20 years ago.
“I recognise that we have choices to make,” he says. “We could stay as a really good regional operator, or merge with other operators to become a hyper scaler of broadband and compete with OpenReach and other national fibre players.”
However, LightSpeed eventually ends up interacting with the wider network, what it has achieved here is unique.
“We are building in a regional, contiguous way, plus we are vertically integrated. We are not just selling the network, but the end-to-end customer experience,” Haines says. “It’s unusual for an altnet to focus exclusively on a region but we believe that’s what customers want.”