inCONVERSATION with Red Peel

Putting inspiration at the heart of innovation

Thomas Edison famously said: “There’s a way to do it better - find it,” and it was this attitude that drove Red Peel to create a business centred around wireless broadband technology.

Co-founder and director of wireless broadband firm, Airband, Red Peel was part of a website design company in south Worcester when he first spotted the gaping hole in the market for robust broadband in out-of-town areas.

This was back in 2002 when broadband technology was just emerging.

"At that time we could get just 56Kbps which was your standard phone modem. We had four of these operating at the same time in order to upload and download the web work we were doing."

I could tell there was a great opportunity...

"I could tell there was a great opportunity because BT had a lot of reluctance to upgrade the telephone exchanges to broadband and they were clearly focusing on the main city centres. But I had no idea technically how to provide an alternative service"

"I looked into satellite broadband but it became clear that it wasn’t going to be a fix-all. And then I came across wireless broadband, which was very big in the United States. So, I had a look at the technology they were using and what UK licensing would be involved"

"After some research, I found a distributor for the equipment and they were happy to work with me and give me advice on how to deploy the radios and we built our first wireless broadband network in Redditch, near Worcestershire"

It was a steep learning curve into a Brave New World, and it took Red six months to get the first service live. "The biggest delay was getting a backhaul connection from BT," he said.

"As with many new businesses, finance was a key challenge because we needed to build an infrastructure network which obviously takes a lot of money"

"At that stage, no-one was willing to invest in the networks because it was an emerging technology. It’s quite interesting though to see how that has completely changed - within the last 18 months to two years, investors have become very interested,” Red explained"

"The great thing about what we do is that people appreciate broadband. It's like bringing water to the desert"

Going global; building South Africa’s first wireless broadband network 

Growing organically, Red built up the Airband wireless broadband network step by step, adding a new area each six months. In 2006, a Canadian company bought the network, and Red turned his attention to creating a network in South Africa, which he sold in 2015 to Herotel, which is now the largest wireless provider in South Africa.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, the internet industry was skyrocketing. The Canadian company who bought Airband’s original networks had gone by the wayside and in 2010, Red was able to pick up where he had left off and ride the swell of interest in the industry.

...innovation is embedded in our ability to take a different perspective...

"At Airband, innovation is embedded in our ability to take a different perspective," said Red. 

"The innovation of what we do is really about taking lots of different bits from lots of different types of technology and mixing them together to be able to give services in a rural landscape"

"So, for example, we might have a radio transmitter using wind power because rural areas don't necessarily have power in the right kind of areas"

"Or it might be using wireless to bring connectivity to a village but using fibre optic within the village to connect, which is back to front compared to how broadband networks are constructed for urban areas" need to have clarity on who you are, what you do, and who you do it for...

"I think that to be truly  successful, you need to have clarity on who you are, what you do, and who you do it for," said Red. 

"I think the secret of our success has been our focus on rural areas and our community engagement. Rural communities really are communities. So our focus on each community has really helped and it's something that BT sometimes struggle with because it is too big.

"One of my favourite moments was when we got a phone call out of the blue from BT in 2014, asking us to supply them services. They were trying to win a contract and they realised that they needed another provider to help them and they won the contract with our help and for a while they were our biggest customer"

"Winning our first tender head to head with BT was another great moment because it was one of those David and Goliath moments. To be able to persuade a government procurement organisation not to go with BT but to go with a unheard of wireless operator - that was massive for us"

Innovation never stops - you need to keep looking forwards

"We are continually improving and fine-tuning our technology and our processes," said Red.

Airband has invested in innovative mapping software ADTI, which incorporates a digital surface model. And it has also invested in trials of ‘White Space’ broadband technology that utilises unused analogue TV frequencies to transmit data - potentially a game-changing technology for the broadband industry.

The firm's innovation and determination have paid off; Airband is now one of Worcestershire’s fastest growing businesses and an award-winning operation. The firm’s extended network spans Worcestershire, Shropshire, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Powys, Warwickshire, North and South Wales, Devon and Somerset. It is recognised as a market leader in Superfast wireless broadband.

In the last two years, Airband has been awarded four large projects, totalling a value of £23 million, supplying broadband to a contracted 34,000 homes and businesses. 

"If I could do anything differently? I'd be more ambitious earlier on I think. I'd have trusted a bit more that people would actually want broadband," said Red. 

Ambition, determination and innovation - a powerful business blend. Embrace the opportunities, push the boundaries, try a new perspective - it's a pathway to success…

If you're unhappy with your current broadband speeds, overcome your ‘load rage’ and check out the Airband website to see if you could benefit from their wireless broadband technology. 

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WINN is a Worcestershire Innovation Programme formed by Worcestershire County Council and the Worcestershire LEP