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Written for the Hackney Citizen and first published here.
Tech City may be the centre of the UK’s technology industry, but it has a serious problem with broadband.
High-speed internet is notoriously hard to come by in the former warehouse districts of East London. So hard, in fact, that Tech City’s broadband woes have been described as a “national embarrassment” by Meg Hillier, MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch.
Globally, the UK is languishing in 15th place for overall broadband speeds. Locally, thousands of homes in Hackney can’t afford a decent internet connection. If there was ever a hole in the market, this is it.
Like most who’ve set up in Tech City, Optimity has developed with disruption in mind, going head-to-head with behemoths like Virgin and BT to offer high-speed internet to the burgeoning digital community.
While fibre optic broadband provided by the big telecoms companies may be fast enough when you get it, it can take months for your chosen provider to dig up the road and lay the cables — too long for most young digital businesses to wait.
Award-winning local firm Optimity cuts out the middle man by providing high-speed wireless antennae that are fixed to the roofs of buildings, a service that can be up in a matter of days.
Its radio wave technology can run at speeds of up to one gigabit – that’s 200 times faster than regular broadband – and if there’s ever a problem with it, an engineer will simply walk around to the office and switch the box.
The company is a resident in one of Shoreditch’s most striking buildings, Zetland House, the 100,000-square-foot former home to the print works for the Bank of England.
Optimity provides wireless broadband exclusively to London businesses, which means no three-month wait to get started and no dealing with far-flung call centres.
“Demand for high-speed is growing very quickly, full stop,” says founder of Optimity Anthony Impey. “iPads, for example, didn’t even exist pre-2010 and four years is an incredibly fast period to become nearly ubiquitous.
“People are also working less at home now than they were, opting to work side-by-side at local coffee shops and co-working spaces. So there are a huge number of businesses in the area that just need faster and faster internet.”
Former Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg has said London is the number one competitor to his city in the technology race. But Impey goes so far as to whittle that down to New York versus Hackney: “This is the heart of the whole digital community. The focus on building infrastructure in Hackney is crucial to London’s leadership as a tech capital.”
At the moment, Optimity serves some 250 local businesses, with the area between Shoreditch and the Olympic Park its key target. Business users can pay around £500 to £600 per month for high-speed broadband, but with its low installation costs, Optimity can cut that cost by about a tenth. The radio spectrum used by Optimity is a low-power, high-performance system originally released by the Ministry of Defence.
The company’s mid-size antenna is just 120mm square, smaller than a satellite dish, and has a tiny footprint compared to a mobile phone mast. Over time this will become even smaller and cost even less, hopefully allowing for the technology to be passed on to residential users — a threatening prospect for the clunky status quo of web providers.
‘David and Goliath’ battle
Impey says that the great digital revolution took the older telecoms companies by surprise and he believes they have made a notable lack of investment at the exact time when London needs it most. “How do we become a gigabit city?” he ponders, referring to the uppermost upload and download speeds made possible with today’s technology. “We need infrastructure that can meet the demand of the tech companies not just today, but in three, five and 10 years’ time.”
The CEO paints his company’s story as a ‘David and Goliath’ fight. “Our competitors are so much more significant and have almost limitless resources… We deliver a very good product, underpinned by an amazing service.”
Just like many companies operating in Tech City, Optimity did not set out to become what it is today, a wireless internet service provider (WISP). The company used to simply offer IT and telecoms services but took the opportunity to ‘pivot’, as the techies call it, when a client needed high-speed broadband, fast.
But, having worked in computing in Hackney for a more than a decade they can also manage clients’ IT and telecoms services too, whether that’s a virtual server or a telephone system.
Optimity has won awards for its commitment to provide local jobs and its outreach work with young people. The company is a backer of Tech City Stars, which recruits young people onto apprenticeships with the help of some 380 sponsor organisations, and is training some apprentices in its office. “There is an amazing amount of untapped talent in Hackney,” Impey says.
Ali Hussain has been an apprentice at Optimity for almost a year. “I had no idea about Tech City but as I hadn’t got the grades to go to university it was another option. Recently I got to go up to the 39th floor of the Heron Tower to help install some kit and had a view of London I never thought I’d see.”
Impey is a huge supporter of the Government’s Super Connected Cities initiative, which helps businesses fund the step change in their internet connection: “This is such an important piece of infrastructure – I’d say even more important than roads and airports, even train lines”, says Impey.
“Moving data around in a digital economy is everything. If you closed down the internet network in proportion to the tube, there’d be a revolution.”
Written for the Hackney Citizen and first published here.
And so it goes — the tides of regeneration have turned again. This time, it’s members of East London’s bustling tech community fighting the developers.
Members of the More Light, More Power campaign group have spoken out against an £800m development of six tower blocks in the derelict Bishopsgate Goods Yard between Shoreditch and Spitalfields, claiming it will turn Tech City into a ghost town.
More Light, More Power, which brings together tenants and traders’ associations in Hackney and Tower Hamlets, forecasts that the development’s 600 luxury flats will be snapped up by a force for change more powerful even than the global technology industry: overseas investors looking to buy properties in East London.
While attempts to balance out the benefits of resources from high-skilled Tech City with its deprived surroundings has already proved challenging, that hasn’t stopped the tech hub’s advocates from feeling betrayed by a potential assault on their plans for growth.
What is Tech City?
The heart of Tech City lies in Shoreditch, but the cluster extends into something of a no-man’s land, sprawling out into Tower Hamlets, Islington and the City, with further hubs reaching as far as Stratford to the East and Croydon in the South.
Look no further than your own backyard for the creators of everything from the personalised music service Songkick to the Moshi Monsters kids’ game series from Mind Candy, plus the London HQ of US home rental firm Airbnb and the corporate chat platform Yammer. Hackney is now home to a growing number of the world’s most recognisable technology brands, consulting firms and even financial services companies.
The so-called Tech City project is being led from central government by the Tech City Investment Organisation (TCIO), part of UK Trade and Investment (UKTI).
Jobs and Skills
According to Hackney Council’s Tech City Overview report, up to 2012 the borough has welcomed some 30,000 highly-qualified residents between the ages of 25 and 35 to work technology jobs. These businesses were found to represent 37 per cent of all employment in the borough, with computer programming, consultancy and telecoms making up three-quarters of those jobs.
A booming hospitality industry now supports these tech workers, representing 22 per cent of all work in Hackney, and is considered a ‘vital gateway’ for longer-term residents who are out of work, totalling around 28,000 people this year.
Hackney Council acknowledges in its Tech City report the need for “intensive assistance” for the borough’s young people to break into the tech community. In some wards, those not in education, employment or training touches 40 per cent, but those achieving 5 A* to C grades has drastically improved in the past decade and now exceeds the national average.
Although Hackney Community College worked with industry to open the borough’s first tech-dedicated school just two years ago, Hackney University Technical College, where all its pupils learn programming, the facility is already set to close due to low applicant numbers. A lot of training activity is “decentralised”, the council says, which means it is actually being led and run by a burgeoning ‘edtech’ sector, with the likes of Decoded and TechCityStars offering their unique brand of ‘upskilling’ today’s youth.
The council’s own research in 2012 found a quarter of Hackney residents had never even used the internet, let alone headed down to Tech City to knock at Google’s door. Digital poverty, unsurprisingly, affects older people, the disabled, those on low incomes, on benefits or in
Although a Freedom of Information request to establish what was being done to address this was turned down by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, the Tech City Overview document offers its own remedy, stating: “The same innovation, collaboration, creativity and dedication that propels Tech City will need to be applied in encouraging spill-over of opportunity to local, unemployed residents and their families.”
A proposed civic space in Tech City that City Hall had secured £50m to build and was going offer public education and attempt to get 10,000 coding, was also scrapped last month.
Hackney Council has played a huge role in courting business, it explains, with a dedicated Invest in Hackney team running tours for developers and investors in order to sell the hip, warehouse-working dream.
Hackney is now home to three projects run by the world’s most sophisticated tax avoiders: the Google Campus free coworking space, Microsoft Ventures London Accelerator program, based at Coworking, and IDEA London, which is part-backed by Cisco.
Some say these global companies don’t play by the rules by using the dubious legislative status being innovative allows. But while Tech City’s big names might not operate in the legitimate way, they are contributing cash to support the thriving tech community.
The council says it has twisted the arm of potential investors by ensuring ‘concessions deals’, which include a commitment to offer open work space in to “help maintain access to the cluster for a new population of young, innovative firms”. But even these young high-tech innovators are now struggling to pay commercial land rates. From a peak in 2008 of around £25 per square metre, space can now reach more than double that.
The average cost of a home in Hackney, meanwhile, reached half a million pounds last December, no doubt receiving added pressure from this incoming tech workforce. At a debate in March entitled ‘Can Tech City Expand Indefinitely?’, Juliette Morgan, Head of Property at Tech City Investment Organisation, made it clear it is “outside of our remit” to have a strategy on residential property. In the next one to two years 222 towers are expected to be built across London to cope with demand for residential and commercial property, many of which are heading to Hackney to accommodate Tech City workers.
As the tech crowd joins the latest round of calls to halt development at all costs – whether a high profile will lend more lobbying power remains to be seen. Are Hackney Council, TCIO and City Hall selling out to the highest bidder, rather than ensuring jobs and homes are available to all residents? Maybe. But as the balance of power to influence development shifts ever faster, perhaps one lesson learned is that in East London’s crowded market, influence is fleeting.