A leap of faith investment in Leeds infrastructure

Dr Adam Beaumont explains how aql has helped to put Leeds on the digital map, and how, digitally, Leeds has become regionally independent. aql, headquartered at the historic Salem Chapel on the south bank of Leeds, was founded by Dr Adam Beaumont in 1998.

Adam, both a scientist and an electrical engineer, started his career with a PhD in Physical Chemistry at the University of Leeds. Following that, he was appointed as Leeds University’s youngest lecturer, before moving out of science and into Secure Mobile Communications for the Defence Evaluation Research Agency “DERA” (an agency of the MoD). Adam’s innovation and insight has turned aql into a significant market force in the integrated communications sector and has been instrumental in putting Leeds on the “internet map”, as well as his part in founding “IXLeeds”, the only mutual, not for profit internet exchange outside of London. He is responsible for much of the data flowing in and out of Yorkshire.

aql’s market position has always been to define itself as a “trusted enabler”, providing a reliable, secure, wholesale communications engine to savvy software suppliers and systems integrators. If you’ve received a text message from a school, supermarket, optician or dentist, it’s very likely it passed via aql’s systems. If you’ve used the internet in Leeds, there’s a high probability the data flowed through one of aql’s Leeds datacentres. If you’ve used an IP telephony system, it’s a fair chance that it runs through aql’s platforms.

aql have been consistently on the forefront of the curve – providing software developers with interfaces to allow their systems to send text messages to the early adopters of mobile phones. In 2003, they built an IP voice network which, a decade on, is now responsible for around 80 million phone numbers. aql’s focus on integrated communications has also extended to the “Internet of Things”. aql have developed advanced, secure technology to provide specialist data SIM cards for vehicle tracking, smart metering, digital signage and health monitoring.

As aql have expanded, their need for datacentre space has increased and a decision was taken to self-build rather than to lease in third party facilities. In 2006, they took the decision to start building their own datacentre infrastructure in Leeds. It turned out that Leeds was ideally placed for a unique opportunity. The historic Leeds Bridge has been a crossing point for the city for around 200 years and it turns out, it has been a crossing point for all of the fibre operators passing through the city for the past few decades.

However, analogous to a high speed train passing through a small village without stopping, there was no “station” (datacentre) built to allow these large data networks to make their capacity available to the city. For a datacentre to be viable, it has to be in close proximity to the fibre operators and also to a plentiful source of power. As the Tetley brewery shut down its operations, along with some heavy manufacturing on the South Bank, excess power became available. At the same time, the almost-derelict Salem Chapel was put on the market. The location and timing was perfect. There was a massive leap of faith (quite literally) by Adam purchasing the Salem Chapel. He was convinced that it was the prime position to enable Leeds digitally.

In 2008, a senior engineer from the UK’s academic network contacted Yorkshire Forward and asked them to facilitate a meeting for all of the regional ISP’s. This meeting was fundamental to the formation of the exchange. Over the coming months, it was agreed by all parties that aql had got their calculations right and the Salem Chapel was indeed the centre of the Internet in Leeds!

IXLeeds was formed, informally at first, then later incorporated as a mutual not for profit company prior to it’s call to arms. In 2010 Leeds was put on the internet map. The existence of the exchange was presented at an internet-engineering conference. This 20 minute talk acted as the catalyst to convince several large global networks to invest millions in network equipment to bring Leeds online.

Now, IXleeds has over 20 members, from large international networks to smaller regional ISP’s and also Akamai – one of the global giants in content delivery. Additionally, IX Leeds enables a choice of connections with Europe, America and Asia, which are independent of London. This creation of an exchange in Leeds and the international links has allowed Leeds to become regionally independent and to allow companies needing national resilience to place equipment in both Leeds and London to help mitigate issues which could affect one city.

There are also financial benefits – one such benefit is that each ISP pays a fixed annual fee to send an unlimited amount of data between members. This means that it is possible to offer the same model to end customers.

To that end, aql has opted to provide unconditionally free wifi broadband to Leeds residents by way of it’s “#Scifiwifi” blue phone box hotspots. This model only works because it’s possible for aql to divert a very large proportion of the wireless traffic directly into the internet exchange, meaning that it does not need to pay “internet access” costs to any third parties. aql are now replicating the “all you can eat” data model to business customers in the Leeds Metropolitan region.

Last year, aql became aware that a government initiative “Broadband Delivery UK” would create a voucher scheme allowing most Small to Medium Enterprises to be eligible for up to £3000 towards costs for superfast connectivity. Based on this scheme and in advance of the superconnected cities scheme being rolled out to Leeds, aql built several wifi masts around the City (you may have seen one near the M621). If your business can see one of these masts, it’s possible to get gigabit broadband covered by a government grant.

Because the grant is centred around covering costs for the setup of superfast broadband only, aql created a wireless superfast solution for the City. The great thing about wireless is that most of the costs are setup costs and thereafter, there’s a minimal running cost. Our model in Leeds is unique – Where we can provide wireless, we are installing Superfast broadband for free, with a free 12 month initial period with no obligation to continue after that point. After 12 months, aql assess your usage and will send an offer for the following 12 months based on how much data your business is consuming.

Dr Adam Beaumont – aql CEO and founder

This means that if you’re a small business and a low data user, your costs will be low. Large users pay more. This is also backed up by a promise to pricematch like-for-like.” aql’s business model is to encourage users to also back up their data to aql’s Leeds-based facilities and also use aql’s cloud telephony systems.

Future plans for the business are further datacentre investment in Leeds and also to ensure that our datacentres are part of the sustainable City Plan for the South Bank. We’ve designed our datacentres to be able to share our waste heat with surrounding buildings and other municipal schemes (such as swimming pools).

A large part of my studies at Leeds University was centred around Thermodynamics – the science of the flow of heat and energy. I’m pleased to be able to put some of that knowledge into practice by working with the City Council on their sustainable district heating initiative. Creating green datacentres not only helps us reduce waste and integrate with the city better, but it also makes us more competitive.

Dr Adam Beaumont – aql CEO and founder