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Be co-founder mows BT's long grass in bid for fibre success

'We can best service a lot of the council estates'

Bridging the IT gap between rising business demands and ageing tools

Interview Dana Pressman Tobak can probably be spotted in the footnote of broadband history, having founded Be Unlimited with her university pal Boris Ivanovic, before quickly selling it on to O2 within a year of offering the product to the company's customers. And now the duo are back, this time under the guise of Hyperoptic – a Shepherd's Bush-based outfit that claims download and upload speeds of 1Gbit/s for high-rise-living Londoners. In an exclusive interview with The Register, Tobak tells us just how much fibre she hopes to quickly feed to the UK.

Hyperoptic is one of the latest ISPs on the market, having launched just nine months ago in September 2011. The company is offering a niche proposition to what it describes as multi-dwelling units (MDUs). We prefer to call them private flats and council high rises, but you get the idea.

Ivanovic already successfully explored the possibility of pumping fibre optic cabling directly into buildings in Sweden way back in 2001 with his private equity-funded firm Bostream, which he sold three years later for hundreds of millions of dollars.

Explaining the journey from Bostream via Be to Hyperoptic, Tobak tells me:

"Essentially, even back then in Sweden they were already at the stage of providing Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) products offered at a price point that people could afford. We focus everything that we do on that aspect."

She adds: "That was the seed for what we're doing now."

Bostream eventually had 100,000 customers in Sweden - 80 per cent of whom were using a DSL variant such as local-loop unbundling or ADSL2+. But the other 20 per cent of subscribers were paying for an FTTP product.

In other words, Ivanovic has done his homework.

Eight years on, he and Tobak wanted to "fill in the holes" left empty by Blighty's national telco BT, which has a "mixed economy" broadband strategy that is focusing much more heavily on running fibre from street cabinets than with blowing the optics directly into homes and businesses in the UK.

In August 2005, when Be went live for its broadband customers, the company became the first telco in the UK to offer speeds of 24Mbit/s in the country, Tobak says.

Today, telecoms watchdog Ofcom insists that 24Mbit/s is the slowest broadband speed that can be branded "superfast".

By 2006, Be had been sold to O2 by the founders of the company. Tobak says of that decision:

At the time we sold Be, essentially the marketplace was one of TalkTalk having just launched its first broadband service, Sky having bought Easynet, and French Telecom renaming Wanadoo to Orange Telecom. AOL was still in existence and about to be bought by TalkTalk. And Tiscali was still in existence, but again about to become part of that conglomerate.

So the market was quite different then and O2 believed if it didn't get a broadband product as part of its offering that it was going to lose that product to Orange and there was an expectation that Vodafone was going to launch a broadband product too.

She adds: "It was a bit sad at the time to sell Be when we did. It was the right thing to do but we knew we hadn't done everything that we had wanted to do."

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