Rich Robinson, Managing Director, Grain Connect discusses the importance of broadband for the future of property and communities
For over 10 years Grain Connect have been building hyper fast broadband networks for communities across the UK. In that time its network designs have proven themselves to be powerful and dependable with high levels of customer satisfaction and reliability.
The company uses the latest in broadband technology, to design, build, install and operate a brand new, ‘true fibre’ network in each community. Rich Robinson, Managing Director at Grain Connect sits down with Showhome to explore the future of broadband technology and discuss the benefits of a ‘true fibre’ network for communities around the UK.
Now we’re in a new year, how was 2019 for the company?
2019 was a fantastic year for Grain Connect. We significantly increased our network, with the majority of the UK’s counties now covered. We managed to secure a large number of new contracts and are working with 90 per cent of the top 50 housebuilders.
Some of our significant wins included the Perry Barr Residential scheme and a framework agreement with innovative developer This Land.
We incorporated one of our partner companies into Grain, bringing some extremely talented people into our team.
The most significant announcement was investment from the Albion Real Asset Fund, who not only give us financial support, but also bring a wealth of knowledge to the Board.
It is clear that we have been doing a lot of growth over the past 12 months, but the key focus of the senior team has been to allow the team to expand at a strong but steady rate, without barriers to growth, while nurturing and driving the team to innovate as much as possible.
In terms of progression, what are you hoping to achieve this year that will show growth to the rest of the industry?
Grain Connect wants to prove we can sustain the growth we have achieved so far.
We want to continue to innovate, bring new technology and demonstrate ways of working to the market.
We also aim to strengthen our relationships with mobile operators and their partners to improve the necessary integration between fixed and mobile technology.
How do you keep up to date with the latest in broadband technology?
Grain attends trade fairs. We collaborate with other innovative alternate network (alt net) operators and work with vendors.
Grain is constantly thinking outside the box (avoiding the “we’ve always done it this way” approach). We’re never complacent when it comes to our standards and are always improving what we do and how we do it.
You strive to create a ‘true fibre’ network in every community you go to – what challenges can come up when trying to repeat your success in one community by heading to another?
Laying the cables is the easy bit, as long as you can get a duct in the right position. In general, developers generally want to avoid upsetting their well-oiled machine. All we’re saying is that there is a better oil to use – the customer is key to this conversation.
Technology changes so quickly. But, to be honest, fibre optic cables aren’t particularly interesting and haven’t changed for ages. In fact, they were invented in 1952 and, until someone invents something quicker than light, they’re here to stay. The piece that has changed is the technology at either end of the cables. So, the key is to make sure the way we install infrastructure is as flexible as possible to ensure we’re making the most of the latest technological advances.
Ensuring we have interchangeable technology is imperative, so we aren’t tied to a particular vendor or a specific technology.
Serving lots of communities is a geographical problem. Being able to access the most reliable network possible is not only a necessity for the customer, but also for Grain to prosper. As a result, all of our thoughts are focused on reliability as it’s a win-win for everyone.
How do you ensure no data limits on your broadband?
This all comes down to our network design, which we can’t really disclose. Ensuring everyone has their own point-to-point fibre is key, as opposed to shared gigabit passive optical networks.
Unlike many of our competitors, we actually deliver fibre all the way to the router, instead of supplying fibre to the property and then relying on copper to connect to the router. It’s important that homeowners check the set-up in their property and insist on the former arrangement.
The live-on-day-one policy that you have is a bold one – but how do you 100% guarantee that this will be the case?
There are a number of important factors at work here, including:
- Project management
- Innovation – We like to approach things differently. For example, when a road crossing is required to get to a site, rather than close the road and dig it up, we use directional drilling, reducing the inconvenience to local residents and maintaining the quality of the road surface. Power is one of the most common failures in telecoms, which is why every cabinet we install has standby power to ensure we remain online 24/7. And every cabinet we supply features a back-up connection, so that someone accidentally drilling through the cable won’t prevent our customers accessing the internet.
- Proactivity – When our engineers are told to visit a site to connect a specific plot to the network, while the team are onsite, they’re encouraged to connect other plots that also appear ready to be connected, saving time and bringing a development online as quickly as possible.
- Technology (although we can’t go into detail)
- Diversity (physical and commercial) – From a physical perspective, we want to make sure that no site runs the risk of relying on a single provider and so we use multiple providers to guarantee a more secure service. And similarly, from a commercial perspective, we use more than one partner to ensure that we’re not affected by, for example, a firm that runs into financial difficulties.
It’s clear that customer service is very much a priority with you and you have several incentives in play too – the Sky Q deal for example – how much difference has it made for the company to put them first?
We rely on feedback from our customers – without it, we could never improve.
We’re always looking at customer trends to ensure our offer is satisfying demand and, where possible, we try to get ahead of that curve. Apple didn’t get where it is today by offering people what they wanted; it anticipated demand, offered what it thought people needed and it was right.
Another example of this is by having a UK customer service support centre – how crucial is this for communication purposes?
Grain’s customer team are amazing. They love getting to know our customers. Having a support team in the UK allows us to create long-term relationships with our customers.
Our team really strives to understand customer problems, which might not always be related to broadband. For example, I overheard one of the team last week explaining to a customer how to log onto emails – living proof that Grain is helping to reduce digital exclusion.
We’re proud of the status we enjoy with our customers and will continue working hard to maintain it.
Recently, you teamed up with This Land for future projects – how did that come about and what are your aspirations for that?
This Land has partnered with Grain to ensure its sites benefit from state-of-the-art, hyperfast fibre optic broadband to match its state-of-the-art homes.
The partnership will see Grain deliver a full-fibre, gigabit-enabled connection to This Land’s sites. The sites will be primarily located in Cambridgeshire, home to one of the fastest growing city economies in the UK. Grain also expects to offer the same level of connection to homes, hospitals and schools outside of the development sites, working closely with the local community to improve connectivity.
Over the next five years, This Land will develop in excess of 1,600 new homes. Focused on creating sustainable neighbourhoods, This Land’s developments are designed to complement the local environment and bring tangible benefits to existing communities. Funded by Cambridgeshire County Council, the revenue that This Land generates will be reinvested into key public services for Cambridgeshire residents.
The partnership between Grain Connect and This Land reflects a common sustainability drive, as both companies promote sustainable deliverability techniques. Grain Connect uses 50 % less plastic than its competitors when laying fibre optic cables, and its network is 70 % more energy efficient than those of its rivals. This Land is noted for employing sustainable building methods, including the use of Durisol and cement-free products.
Reliability is a huge buzzword when it comes to selecting broadband – how do you maintain that?
Customers don’t care about their broadband supplier so long as the service provided is affordable, easy-to-use and reliable. Our pricing is affordable in comparison to the market, with our basic product being 20 % cheaper than the main market players’ offer.
We provide lots of technologies to enhance reliability, such as standby power in a power cut. The best example is the router-live-connection monitoring. If a router does go down, we know about it before the customer does. For instance, when a school went offline outside of term time, we sent an engineer who happened to be in the area. It turned out that there was a flood and so our engineer rang the caretaker and turned off the stopcock – the issue was unrelated to the router.
You’ve already spoken about your plans for this year, but where do you think you’ll be in five years?
The alt net world will be a different place. We expect to see a growth in the number of alt net providers over the next few years, driven by government policy
We want to be a consolidator, not consolidated. At some point, the accessible market will inevitably run out as we approach 100% fibre to the premises and some alt nets won’t be able to expand any further. This will lead to certain alt nets being consolidated by larger or more successful players.
We want to be the go-to new build telecoms provider and we also aim to be one of the key well-known UK alt nets.