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The unique nature of Hull’s telecommunications system

Unless you’re a football or rugby fan, the name KCOM might not mean much to you.

Indeed, it probably doesn’t mean much to anyone outside the East Riding.

That’s because this region has a unique telecommunications setup, with the KCOM Group holding an effective monopoly on phone and internet services.

There’s no BT in the East Riding, no Openreach and no Virgin Media. In fact, none of the UK’s big telephone or broadband brands has a toehold here.

Below, we consider how such an unusual state of affairs arose, and whether it may change in future.

The last independent network

The UK’s early telephone network was controlled by local authorities.

Hull City Council established its own municipal telephone exchange back in 1904, and subsequently resisted handing it over to the Post Office’s burgeoning network.

The council’s continuing intransigence meant the Hull Telephone Department was the only phone network not adopted by the Post Office – subsequently rebranded as British Telecom.

(That’s why phone boxes in Hull have always been cream, rather than red.)

The Telephone Department was rebranded as Kingston Communications in 1987, becoming KCOM in 2007.

It still owns the only major fixed network in the area, giving it effective control over broadband and telephony services.

Even so, the company hasn’t stood still.

It plans to complete the roll-out of fibre broadband next spring, by which time most homes will enjoy ultra-fast Fibre to the Premises connections.

Earlier this year, 400Mbps broadband and phone bundles were rolled out to customers for the first time.

A price for everything

Substantial investment in a modestly-sized market comes at a price.

A typical 18-month fixed broadband contract with KCOM can cost up to £60 per month, where BT and Virgin Media’s fees top out at around £45.

KCOM’s connection fees are also several times higher than BT or Virgin, while there’s no TV service alongside phone and broadband provision.

Sky TV or on-demand services like YouView and Netflix represent the only alternatives to the basic Freeview service.

A game of monopoly

As British Telecom customers will ruefully acknowledge, monopolies don’t tend to push up standards by themselves.

Ofcom has spent much of the last year investigating this anomalous situation, and it published a weighty 165-page report a couple of weeks ago.

It stipulated KCOM must share wholesale local access with other providers in future, just as BT’s Openreach offshoot needs to make its infrastructure accessible to TalkTalk, Plusnet, etc.

However, it’ll be up to individual telecoms firms to decide which services they need – and then to request them.

Greater competition is anticipated to drive down prices, which will be welcomed by East Riding residents.

A couple of independent providers have already installed fibre networks across parts of the city, but Hull’s relatively compact size makes significant investment unprofitable.

National players ought to be able to bring their own economies of scale to bear in this unique local market.

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