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Why Hull has cream phone boxes (and why it’s relevant to tech today)

Hull’s set to become the European Capital of Culture in 2017, cue visions of John Prescott cutting the ribbon looking as cultured as some bloke who’s just quickly pulled on his Sunday best.

The big moment is fast approaching, but it’s not only the city’s political leaders that might be in need of a face lift.

Despite being a significant trading hub as far back as medieval times, Hull’s telecoms infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with technological change.

Although Hull is reportedly the only city in the UK that is getting broadband officially described as “ultrafast” as standard, the leading local network provider KCOM hasn’t yet delivered.

Hull is the only city in the UK to have kept (until 2007) an independent, municipal telephone network provider, that’s KCOM.

Image credit: RM21/Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: RM21/Wikimedia Commons

And that’s why it has distinctive cream phone boxes and its residents received the White Pages telephone directory, rather than Yellow Pages.

But Hull was also one of only two places named in Ofcom’s Connected Nations report in 2015 where more than 30 per cent of businesses were stuck with sub-10 Mbps broadband.

In another report that flags poor connectivity as a significant issue for the citythe University of Hull concluded:

“Currently, the region finds itself towards the bottom of the league for most key metrics related to economics, skills, employment, social mobility, entrepreneurship and innovation.”

KCOM has committed to ramping up its roll out of Lightstream, which the company says is up to 25 times faster than copper cable broadband. It’ll be available to around three quarters of properties within its network over the next 18 months.

In the meantime, though, Hull is set to gain ‘Gigabit City’ status, thanks to a new, large-scale fibre roll out by CityFibre, which is partnering with young local KCOM competitor Pure Broadband.

Barack Obama likened the availability of super-fast, fibre-optic internet to that of “being the first city to have fire”.

He said that these internet speeds are akin to “unleashing a tornado of innovation” and many cities across the world are working out how they can get a slice of the action.

CityFibre claims its network offers speeds up to 1,000 Mbps (1 Gbps) and says its network is future-proofed to be able to allow for ever-greater capacity. It’ll soon be laying fibre across 62 km of the city to try to compete directly with KCOM’s effort.

The company has already upgraded most of the city to 4G, having installed fibre connections to mobile masts throughout Hull, in partnership with EE and Three.

Hull is now home to incubator and business innovation space C4DI and is a key city that could benefit from the government’s Northern Powerhouse initiative.

Let’s hope it doesn’t continue to be held back by the slow web speeds identified by Ofcom as Europe’s gaze lands there during its City of Culture year.

The University of Hull’s State of the Humber Economy report suggests that the city “plan to actively support entrepreneurship and innovation”.

If Barack Obama is to be believed, becoming a Gigabit City is most of the job done.

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