The weather-beaten cabin stands at the end of a road through fields, past high metal gates and a barking guard dog. Inside, Melanie Bell sits in front of a constantly updating computer screen – the nerve centre from which she controls her family's fleet of 17 articulated vehicles.
Ensuring safe passage for these huge tow trucks through East Yorkshire's narrow village streets, with their ancient brick cottages, is a nerve-racking business. Bell tracks her fleet's position on Google maps, flicking to the photographic street view. The images update so quickly that she is able to guide drivers in real time through tricky turnings and into suitable parking spaces.
It's a way of working that would not have been possible before the local telephone company Kcom, formerly known as Kingston Communications, decided to lay fibre-optic cables that could reach every property in Bell's village. Woodmansey has gone from a broadband blackspot, with connection speeds under the 2 megabits-a-second minimum needed for services like iPlayer, to a lightning 100mbps.
"It is helping our business a great deal," says Bell, who can now log into the office systems from home, a huge benefit when drivers are on call 24/7. "We used to have problems when we had thunder and lightning, where it would drop the connection. Since we've had fibre-optic we've not had a problem full stop."
In January, Kcom surprised no one more than its own customers by announcing a major investment in top-flight fibre-to-the-home connections. Some 15,000 homes will receive cable this year, and the results of this trial shared with investors in November. After that, the technology will be rolled out to more of the 250,000 homes in Hull, Beverley and East Yorkshire served by Kcom's network, at a speed dictated by demand.
Scarred by the decline of the fishing industry, Hull has twice the national average number of unemployment benefit claimants but it is also taking the first steps in a "digital spring" that has the potential to revolutionise the local economy. Until now, the city has been a broadband backwater. An historical anomaly that left it with a council-owned telecoms company – Hull held a stake in Kcom until 2007 – it is the only UK city not covered by BT's telephone network.
Internet service providers that drove broadband take-up, such as TalkTalk and Sky, have never offered the service in Hull, arguing it was uneconomical to put their equipment in Kcom telephone exchanges. The result was a monopoly, in which only 50% of Hull homes had broadband a year ago, embarrassingly below the 68% national average then. But things are changing. Kcom has just eliminated every blackspot in its network, while in the rest of the UK 14% of broadband connections remain below the 2mbps minimum, with many more simply out of reach of a connection.
In some ways the plans are more ambitious than BT's, albeit with less ground to cover. The larger rival's national fibre rollout has already reached more than 10m homes but it will stop at street cabinets. The old copper wires, prone to dropping the service in wet weather and sometimes in intense heat, will continue to run the final metres to the doorstep. Kcom, by contrast, is mostly using fibre all the way.
BT is promising a maximum speed of 80mbps over the copper/fibre hybrid service, and says this could improve with time. But fibre is already capable of many times that. In Woodmansey, one resident whose home is acting as a test centre for Kcom's top speeds has recorded 973mbps.
What Hull will get is also well ahead of the national targets of 90% of the population on 24mbps by 2017. BT argues its fibre-to-cabinet speeds are "more than people need". Running cables to 26 million homes would simply be a waste of money, because people do not yet have the technology to use up all that bandwidth.
However, Kcom's modelling suggests that by 2018, the average household will be bursting through the 50mbps mark. "The current copper networks will not be able to cope," says Kevin Walsh, Kcom board director and broadband head. "Copper came about for carrying voice, not data. We are right at the limit of copper."
As computers in every shape and size from tablets to phones and televisions multiply in homes, the biggest users of bandwidth will be large families. Walsh calls teenagers "the new killer app", noting how his three-year-old grandchild can already navigate an iPad. "Orla is screen literate before she is paper literate."
The one thing I can be sure of is the pace of change is going to be phenomenal."
Demand is already outstripping Walsh's expectations. The company ran out of routers at one point. Already, in hard-to-reach blackspots such as Woodmansey take-up has been 90%. In better-served areas, 20% of those customers already taking broadband have signed up, even at the high-end price of £48 a month including calls for the fastest package.
Just as important as speed is reliability. Wet weather often interferes with copper signals in rural areas. For Bell Truck Services, this is crucial. When the AA has more jobs than it can cope with, a message arrives on a second computer screen. When the connection went down in the past, Bell would have to ask the AA to telephone their alerts. "We did lose jobs, because nobody wants to have to ring up," she says.
For another Woodmansey resident, Bill Chryssovergis and his wife Susan, fibre arrived just in time to allow them to stay in the village. He is a project manager for an electronic clothing label company, which downscaled its operations in Hull. The remaining employees decided to work from home. "We needed to have really fast internet connectivity," says Susan.
They have also used their superfast upload speeds to back up all their music and family photos to Apple's iCloud servers, a safety precaution taken after their previous collection was lost when the home computer conked out. With the iPlayer and 4oD serving up instant, crisp images, viewing habits have changed. "Now we don't tend to watch television, we just watch series."
While Bell Truck Services could probably get by on less than a superfast connection, this is not so for Beverley-based web developer John Polling, who pays for a 100mbps service. "I could cope with a slower speed but I wouldn't want to," he says. "It's to the point where I wonder 'could I actually move house?' If I did it would have to be to a fibre house. I'm trapped in Hull, but in a good way."
Polling's home connection is now six times faster than his office service. And he thinks that by the time his children are teenagers, the family will need Kcom's fastest speed of 350mbps.
On the first night fibre was installed, he tested it by downloading a massive file that simulates a Microsoft PC on to his Mac. It's the kind of tool web designers need to update every two months, and which on his previous broadband service used to take all night.
With fibre it took 45 minutes, and he was able to watch the iPlayer at the same time. The connection has changed his daily habits: CD and DVD collections have been packed away. With his television set plugged into an Xbox games console, which via an internet connection can serve up movies from Netflix or Channel 4's internet player 4oD, he now watches very little live TV. All his music, films and photos are now stored in "the cloud" rather than on his computer's hard drive.
The digital radio set has fallen out of use. He now streams music from the Spotify website, paying for the premium service that lets him download songs onto his iPhone – one album takes a minute – so that he can play them in the car. Were it not for the Sky Atlantic channel, which holds the rights to US blockbuster TV series such as Mad Men, Polling says he would have cancelled his satellite subscription by now.
For work, he no longer has a landline. All calls are via Skype, which he uses for video conferencing. "When I speak to people on Skype they say it's like having you in the room, the image quality is so good." Video conferencing is essential because Polling's design agency, The League of Extraordinary Developers, is staffed by freelancers who all work in different locations.
Recruiting digital engineers has never been easy for Hull firms, competing with bigger and more glamorous communities in Leeds and Manchester. Polling thinks fibre will change that. Although he uses far more bandwidth than the average Kcom customer, he is part of a growing minority. "The developer community is one part of the economy that isn't slowing down. Everyone I know has never been this busy."
Kcom's fibre project is a pioneering one. If it succeeds, it may boost not only the local economy but inspire a more ambitious broadband plan for the UK.
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