Public Technology

Written by Sam Trendall on 21 November 2019 in Features

The city has ambitious plans, and benefits from ubiquitous access to full-fibre broadband. PublicTechnology talks to the council’s digital and IT chief to find out more

An image of the skyline of the city of Kingston upon Hull

Hull skyline Credit: John Bannon/CC BY-SA 3.0

If you asked a group of people to call to mind an image of the world’s smartest city, many would immediately think of the high-rise ultramodernity of Singapore.

Others would conjure an image of the east Asian megalopolises of Seoul and Tokyo. Some might find their thoughts drifting towards the Nordic capitals of Oslo, Copenhagen, or Helsinki, or perhaps to Switzerland’s biggest hubs: Geneva; and Zurich.

Those whose imagination did not stray beyond the UK would probably draw a mental picture London, or maybe Bristol or Manchester at a push.

Kingston upon Hull – for all its many charms – would be unlikely to feature too frequently.

But the city, whose population of 260,000 ranks it towards the bottom of the list of the UK’s 20 largest, has ambitions to be not just the leading smart city in this country – but one of the smartest in the world.

And its plans have one major and distinct advantage.

Last month, it was proclaimed that Hull was the first full-fibre city in the UK – with every single building connected to the next-generation network. The proportion of properties across the UK with a fibre-to-the-premises connection is just 8%.

“Because of our size – 27 square miles – and because of the infrastructure we have, it makes it easy to do things quickly.”
Mike Kenworthy, Hull City Council

The impact has already been felt on connection speeds; a recent analysis of Ofcom data by comparison site Broadband Choices found that Hullensians have the fastest internet in the UK – with average download speeds of 87 Mbps.

The completion of the fibre network follows a seven-year £85m investment programme from local telecoms firm KCOM.

The company, and its history, is key to why Hull now benefits from its uniquely advanced infrastructure. It was created by the city council as the Hull Telephone Department in 1904. Hull was not the only city to run a local government-owned telecoms network. But it was the only one that did not ultimately cede control of its network to BT.

KCOM – derived from Kingston Communications – remained a publicly owned entity until 1999, when it was floated on the stock exchange. The council retained a stake in the firm until 2007.

And the city of Kingston upon Hull retains its famous cream phone boxes (pictured below); it has long been the only place in the country where the kiosks are not the familiar shade of red – nor do they bear the image of the crown.

KCOM, meanwhile, retains an effective monopoly over the city’s telecoms infrastructure.

This level of control has allowed it to drive through the rollout of full fibre for all Hull’s residents – infrastructure that was last year supplemented by the installation by the council of a citywide long-range wide area network (LoRaWAN) to support business connectivity and internet of things devices. This technology was delivered by Connexin.

With more than 100 years of pioneering telecoms work behind it, Hull City Council decided it was time to reap the benefits of its past to support its smart-city future, the authority’s assistant director of digital and ICT Mike Kenworthy tells PublicTechnology.

“The idea was to start utilising the really great infrastructure we have here,” he says. “We were working on small projects around traffic management and air quality, and it became evident that we needed to pull all the data together [in one place] and be able to present it back to the public and put a layer on top of it – either BI or AI.”

Wizards of OS
The first step towards this ambition was to install the CityOS platform from Connexin that will, effectively, serve as the underlying operating system for a whole city’s worth of connected devices and the programs used to manage their operation.

The city-wide OS, which is supported by hardware architecture from network vendor Cisco, will also provide a single home for 12 council IT systems that are currently separate. Each of these systems processes data – in many cases from sensors and other IoT kit – related to a single service area or civic issue. This information will be housed in a central “data warehouse”.

Allowing everyone in the city – citizens, businesses, and public entities – to access and use this data is the ultimate goal.