Full speed ahead: in conversation with Truespeed CEO, James Lowther

Not all of us know our copper cables from our full-fibre, but we do know how frustrating it is when the broadband connections just aren’t there. Emma Clegg talks to James Lowther, CEO of Truespeed, who offer fast broadband services to the south west to rival those rolled out as a standard in China, South Korea and Europe.

Think back to 1998 – if your age allows it – when the Internet became mainstream. Then it was a case of dial-up connections that provided maximum speeds of 512 kilobits per second. Compare that to a 150Mbps speed, offered by local broadband company Truespeed as their most basic package. That 512 kilobits per second in 1999 is a mind-blowing 2343th fraction of the 150Mbps speed.

We all know that speed matters – used to as we are to waiting for a data connection in one of our city’s blackspots, but James Lowther, CEO of Truespeed, knows it more than most. He’s been at the helm of the company since December last year, but he has a wealth of telecoms experience and has fully embraced Truespeed’s determination to “Bring some of the fastest broadband speeds in the world to the south west, rather than waiting for the big incumbents to get around to doing it.”

Truespeed started in 2014, set up in the Chew Valley between Bath and Bristol, which both then had terrible internet connections. “None of the big providers were doing anything about it”, says James. “I spent a stint working in Sweden (for the Swedish equivalent of Virgin Media) where they are light years ahead of the UK in terms of the rollout of fibre, but even now companies like BT Openreach and Virgin are rolling out fibre across the big cities, but still the smaller market towns, including those in the south west of the UK, have been largely neglected.

“The UK is playing catch-up and our government has recognised that by putting £5 billion in to try and modernise our infrastructure. The large companies are focusing on where they have dense populations and are behind the curve. We are a smaller company and able to serve the local community rather than focus on the ultimate returns nationwide to shareholders.

Above: Truespeed have connected over 300 local businesses – Kelston Vets was our 300th customer and our broadband helps them provide faster animal care (hence the horse)

“Our directive is to roll out a full-fibre network across the south west. Primarily we’re focused on Somerset, so in and around Bath and Bristol and the surrounding market towns, into South Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, but with Somerset at the heart of the network. We want to create a regional local company which offers really fast broadband and a really great customer experience. We feel it’s crazy in this day and age that Bath is still struggling for good quality data and internet connection.”

Hold on, customer experience… do you mean where you can talk to a real life voice on the telephone? And not have to press buttons with categories you don’t understand, or listen to Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On as you wait?

“We have our call centre based in our office in Bath, so if anyone calls up, you are not sent to the other side of the country – you speak to a real human being who lives in Bath or close by, and who can relate to the issues you’ve got.”

This is sounding impressive. So what about the technology? Can you explain this in a way that I can understand?

“People have been told that they have had fibre for years, but it hasn’t been fibre. It’s been fibre part way into the network, but not to the end because you’ve had an antiquated copper cable going the final mile into the home. So it doesn’t matter who you switch to – if they are still using the BT Openreach copper cable it will be a poor service. What we’re doing is building a brand new network from scratch, where we use a fibre-optic cable, that is connected directly into people’s properties.”

There is a real sense of civic pride in the area, and people genuinely want to improve the infrastructure

So, I conclude, copper cable is bad and a brand new network is good. So what has changed in practice in our local area? “Truespeed have made a huge improvement to the speeds in our area. The fibre network enables people to get speeds of up to 10 Gbps per second. That is the fastest tech, faster than anyone currently needs, so it’s future-proofed. Historically people have been struggling with 20–30 Mbps in rural areas, so it’s a huge leap up. You read about the speeds people have access to in South Korea and Japan and that’s the tech we’re rolling out.”

So what regions are covered? And if they are not, presumably laying new cables takes a while and a fair bit of manpower?

“It’s a race to roll out fibre across the region,” says James. “We’re focused on building the fibre network as quickly as possible, but also making sure we keep it really high-quality and create it with as good a service as possible. We also keep our pricing competitive, keeping an eye on our competitors. The significant thing at the moment is that the big internet providers have all been cranking up their prices, with 9–10% price rises in the last few months. We’ve gone against this trend and have frozen our prices to guarantee no price increases for at least the next 12 months. We are trying to do things differently. We live amongst the communities that we are serving and we understand the economic pressures we are all under.

“At the moment we’re building networks in and around Bath and Bristol and to the south of Bath in Midsomer Norton and Peasedown St John. We are also rolling out in Keynsham, and outside Bristol we’re doing Portishead, Clevedon, Nailsea and Backwell. We’ve already rolled out networks to the south of Bath, so up into Bear Flat, and we have a good coverage across the Chew Valley.

“There is a large amount of work that goes into building a network from scratch. And as you go more rural it becomes more expensive and time-consuming to build. We use the existing infrastructure where possible, so if there is BT ducting we’ll use that to run our own cables through. Where that doesn’t exist, we dig and lay our own ducting to pass our cables through. Our rollouts typically are a mix of the two.”

How are the decisions made about where to roll out the cables?

“We look at different factors – primarily where the need is greatest. We will look where we’ve got network already where we can build out, and where there is the highest demand (people can register their interest on the Truespeed website), and also where it makes logical sense, so we won’t start with the most remote properties that are spread out, but will land in market towns first.”

With the original company totalling six in 2014, Truespeed now employ over 200 people. “At the beginning of this year we secured another £100 million (we have £175 million in total) from our investors, creating a massive capital investment project. To help structure that, we have been growing the size of the team. We now employ over 200 people across a variety of disciplines and functions, from planning the network to building it, to selling it to manning our call centre. So it’s really exciting growing the company and creating jobs in Bath. We use a lot of subcontractors too, creating more jobs in the region.”

Our mindset is centred around giving people the best-quality and most human experience

James tells me that typically employees come in to the Bath office 2–3 times a week for face-to-face meetings and work from home the rest of the time. When I ask if it was lockdown that helped establish this balance, I discover this wasn’t a great question, as he reminds me that, “Being able to work remotely is the ultimate USP of our technology.”

Truespeed are part of the Bath Unlimited listing of world-class businesses operating in the region and they take immense pride in the communities they live and work in. As James says, “There is a real sense of civic pride in the area, and people genuinely want to improve the infrastructure and have a real passion to make the south west better, and that’s amazing to be a part of.” The community investment is so strong that Truespeed provide free broadband to primary schools and community hubs where they have networks, currently totalling 140 connections. James explains, “These are all communities that the people at Truespeed are living in. This is a way we can give back to the communities where we are working.”

This philosophy is uplifting and refreshing and it stretches to every aspect of the business: “A people-first approach is crucial to us. First of all we are rolling out underlying network product with speed of broadband that is so much faster than people can get today. But most fundamental is the sense that we’re doing it for people, and we’re achieving it with our people in the community. Our mindset is centred around giving people the best-quality and most human experience.”

There is no arguing with that. And when I ring Truespeed on the telephone a little later to check some details, a real person answers, almost immediately.

Truespeed are growing fast and as well as actively recruiting for various roles, are offering traineeship schemes to give young people and graduates the skills to start their career in telecoms | truespeed.com