Cutting-edge internet technology conjures up images of California's sweltering Silicon Valley, not a windswept Scottish port in the Western Isles.
Broadband connections will soon be available to most UK homes and with it you’ll be able to chat to Auntie Marge, download the latest Hollywood blockbuster to watch later while little Jimmy enjoys a video conference call with a mate in Borneo - all at the same time.
Last year, Centrica acquired the UK telephone business One.Tel for £58 million. Over a number of years, Iomart had built up a growing reputation as an independent operator and One.Tel bought it for £2 million to launch One.Tel’s broadband service in March. But as anyone who’s ever struggled to set a video knows, technology doesn’t always go to plan. To help, One.Tel provides expert technical assistance from the old Iomart call centre in the Gleann Seileach Business Park, Stornoway, Lewis - the most northerly call centre in the UK - and a ‘very nice building’ on the outskirts of the town says Tracy Allen, One.Tel’s operations manager. If you’re wondering why Lewis, it’s because Angus MacSween, one of the founders of Iomart had links with Lewis and wanted to create jobs there.
Last year was a difficult year in the internet industry and Iomart had to shed jobs. When Centrica took over, the staff were delighted. "They’re feeling really positive," says Tracy. "It feels a bit odd being so remote yet part of a much larger entity." Eventually BT may even get round to wiring up the Isle of Lewis to broadband, so the One.Tel employees can enjoy the service at home!
Naturally, becoming part of an international corporation is not without its eye-opening moments. "The amount of people involved with making decisions has increased," says Tracy, "and that came as a big surprise."
Lewis is one of the most picturesque islands in the UK. The rugged coastline and pristine sandy beaches are popular with walkers, although swimmers may require wetsuits and perhaps a dram of the Lewis malt whisky, Black House, to thaw out frozen cockles. Visitors may also glimpse otters, seals, dolphins and even eagles.
Those of us used to life further south may wonder what it’s like to live here. Tracy, originally from Sussex, is a good person to give an insight. Her husband lived Lewis and they decided they liked it enough to move 600 miles north a year and a half ago.
"It’s like going back 50 years, yet it’s modern in a lot of ways," says Tracy. "You get home deliveries from the shops in the more remote areas, which is what supermarkets down south have begun to do - and I do miss Waitrose! It’s not the sort of place where you get a takeaway on the way home."
The weather is a key element to life up here. "When you go into the shops, if it’s not raining, people say, ‘It’s a lovely day.’ Four seasons in one day is the reality up here," says Tracy. Indeed, the day Centrica Essentials took photos for this story we picked the ideal blue-sky moment, sandwiched between a hailstorm and rain. "Last week the BBC weather forecast said we’d have light winds. It was Force 6!" she says.
The working day at Gleann Seileach Business Park (9am to 6.30pm, Monday to Friday) is just about to be radically altered by Lewis standards. One.Tel is recruiting locally so it can extend office hours from 8am to 8pm, seven days a week. "Sunday working isn’t the norm on Lewis," explains Tracy. "There is a strong religious sentiment. We’re not going to make a big song and dance about it, and we won’t pressurise people to work Sundays either. Life is quite slow on Sundays, though!"
Slowness is not a description that can be applied to a broadband connection. It downloads data between 12 and 40 times faster than a standard modem. (Check out the demonstration on onetelbroadband.com) This blazing speed eliminates the ‘world wide wait’ and can open up a new world of audio, video and games.
"Broadband allows people to use the net in the way that it was designed," says Phil Worms, head of broadband at One.Tel. "It’s an enabler for all those wonderful resources that the net offers."
Centrica Essentials Spring 2002