Kingston Upon Hull: Digital capital of Britain?

February 20, 2009 at 2:16 pm 2 comments

Land of the white phonebox: a Kingstonian kiosk

Land of the white phonebox: a Kingstonian kiosk

No, really. Of all the odd Things We Have Learned This Week, this one takes the biscuit. When it was privatised, BT was charged with maintaining all the telcoms infrastructure in the UK and ensuring that everyone everywhere had access to decent basic internet and phone services. With one exception: Kingston Upon Hull.

The East Yorkshire town is its own miniature telcoms fiefdom, served by its own telcoms group, KCOM. Founded in 1882 after councils were invited to bid for the first telephone exchange contracts, it was entirely owned by Kingston Upon Hull Council until it was floated on the stock exchange in 1999. They still retain a 44.9% share of the company.

But being small didn’t limit this company’s ambitions. They were the first to create an all-digital infrastructure, serving East Yorkshire. They launched a pioneering local interactive television service in 1999 which delivered user’s emails, video-on-demand and local information as well as the usual television services. And so on.

The moral of this tale seems to be that where there is a synergy between local people, local institutions and technology-savvy nerds, great things can happen. KCOM is not just a successful business, it’s given its community all sorts of useful things over the years.

It’s also interesting to note that although the digital revolution opened up a dizzying number of possibilities for KCOM, it was harnessing technology for the public good in innovative ways for over a century before the internet was widely available. One might hazard a guess that it was able to capitalise on the potential of digital technology because it knew its users so well. In other words, they’d spent time getting the people part right so they knew exactly what to do with the wires and flashing lights.

Involving communities and councils in pioneering projects doesn’t have to take the edge off them. Sometimes local knowledge and local people are the edge.


Entry filed under: digital inclusion.

Ms Rimington’s right: fear itself is a fearful thing Who needs mortgages anyway?

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jon Moss  |  February 21, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    Kcom is in a unique position as it is the only provider, leaving people with limited choice, especially with broadband.

    This has created a lot of resentment in the past and it is essential that they get their customer service and offerings right.

    I’ve just founded, where we are starting to encourage the digital community in the region. We have a regular monthly Meetup (just search for Hull Digital MeetUp) and the response has been staggering. No more is Hull left out when it comes to the online / techie / developer / designer communities!

    • 2. Rosie A  |  February 23, 2009 at 11:04 am

      Jon, thanks for commenting. I guess it goes to show that there is always at least two ways of looking at an issue. My point was really that they’ve done some very innovative things over the years, despite their small size.

      But I take seriously your point about a lack of competition. I’m surprised though. As I understood it, Kcom are responsible for maintaining the communications infrastructure of the area and ensuring that anyone who wanted to be connected would be wired up, just like BT. I assumed that, like BT, that infrastructure could be used by any other company to deliver services, and if they wanted to install their own cables, wires and flashing lights they were at liberty to do so. Is this not the case?

      But at the risk of annoying you, the fact that you and your fellow techies are taking matters into your own hands and organising yourselves to press for change only goes to prove my original point. The Hull area is a hotbed of digital innovation! 😉


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