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October 14, 2010

The fibre won’t change, what you do with it will: Q&A with Geo CEO Chris Smedley

CBR talks to network provider Geo about fibre optic networks and running cables through London's sewers

By Vinod

You describe your company as a provider of "open access provider of a dedicated fibre network". Can you explain what you might mean by that?
So we offer a leased fibre optic cable network to UK organisations ranging from mobile service providers like 3 and O2 to ISPs like Tiscali and TalkTalk then on to a range of large corporates in financial services. We also provide broadband access to residential and business customers in Wales through a partnership with the Welsh Assembly and are building a sub-sea link to Dublin. What we mean by open access is that the customers can either buy dark fibre off us which they can light up in any way they need or they can use us to operate the network for them.

Chris Smedley, Geo CEO

One of the reasons we were interested in talking to your company is the firm’s roots and background; you’ve been through some interesting changes. And of course you’re well known as the company whose network runs in London’s Victorian sewers and alongside the national gas pipeline structure. Can you walk us through all that, please?
We launched in 2004 after our then owners, Hutchison Whampoa, bought the network assets of a predecessor organisation to help deliver its 3G service in the UK. That asset was in fact the last national fibre optic network to be built at the start of the last decade, in this case by Lattice, then part of British Gas. We combined that work with what Thames Water had been doing in London – all our cables run through the London sewer system, as you say – to make the full network. The result is a very robust high-speed optical network that covers the whole of the UK.

Though you are no longer owned by Hutchison Whampoa. Why did they sell you to a private equity firm in 2008?
I’d myself been brought in to run Geo by Hong Kong when the firm was set up and then went back a few years later to persuade them to invest in a bigger business model than they had originally envisaged [to help deliver its 3 mobile service]. The reason Alchemy, our new owners, bought us in turn was that they see great potential for return on investment.

How so? It’s not as if there’s a big growth market in laying new fibre.
The growth isn’t in the network, it’s what you do with it; the fibre won’t change, it’s how it’s lit that will evolve. The scope for what we do is enormous and we’ve trebled the size of our sales teams post the buyout in response to that.

Give us an example of where you see growth, then.
A huge part of our story is the change in requirements by customers who are creating new network services on top of our bandwidth. For example, a key market for us now is connecting corporate HQs with their data centres over our fibre. Financial services companies like Royal Bank of Scotland, BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank as well as major law firms like Freshfields have made significant investments in data storage in data hotels because of the scalability and security they get – but they also have invested in using our services to give them the most robust and resilient way to link those assets back to the main office.

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We just built such a link for a subsidiary of the Skipton Building Society between a new secondary data centre and other sites, for instance, using dark fibre to install 12 pairs of G.652 fibres to let the customer isolate its traffic down individual fibres for things like SAN replication, DMZ and internal traffic between sites. So as a start-up, we see great potential.

Well, a start up in some senses. You have been operating for six years.
But the move to financial services for example was only three years back. We have miniscule market share compared to a BT or a Cable & Wireless, agreed. But I regard that as room for growth. I also think there is huge potential for high-speed network services in the general economy. You don’t have to do any crystal ball gazing to imagine what kind of content sharing, new businesses, video-conferencing or telemedicine would be like – you just have to go to France, Portugal or the Netherlands, let alone Japan or South Korea which have symmetrical 100Mbps networks now compared to our national target of 2.

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