back to article Inside Adastral: BT's Belgium-sized broadband boffinry base

Adastral Park is BT’s global research and development centre, one of the world’s most pioneering centres of technology and telecommunications. Like other visitors to the area, I’ve gazed at the Le Corbusier-inspired building and its iconic tower cube rising out of the surrounding flat Suffolk farmland. It announces its …


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  1. IHateWearingATie

    4 acres was really interesting

    The 4 acre site was fascinating when I visited, watching an engineer give a demonstration of blowing fibre and fiddling with the passive splitters.

    Don't forget kids, fibre cables have a yellow stripe so don't bother nicking them when you're after some copper to sell to the scrappie!

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    All back-doored by Huawei ?

    1. Steve Evans

      I was wonedring that too...

      "an engineering HQ that takes top-flight technology and works out how to deploy and operate it the real world."

      So why are they shipping that cheap Chinese Home Hub with all the bugs?

  3. Elmer Phud


    Shame that so many of the talented staff have been axed or outsourced over the years.~

    Madastral Pork showed you can get a good telly picture down copper -- in the 1970's.

    Then there was Westminster Cable(?) that didn't go anywhere as a certain now ex-Australian was wooing the Prime Minister of the day.

    Ah, Rupes, you have so much to answer for

  4. circusmole
    Thumb Down

    Yes, very impressive BT.

    It's a pity that they will not be improving my sub-1Mb/sec broadband connection, on the outskirts of a biggish town for, and I quote, "the forseeable future and maybe never" because I live in a "lane" and getting a fibre anywhere near me, and the other 20 houses in the "lane", would be "difficult". Apparently it was not "difficult" to get it to the numerous houses 30-50 metres from me.

    1. Christopher Rogers

      Re: Yes, very impressive BT.

      Correct. For all their bleating on, Broadband in the UK is still the poor relation. The sooner we sell the network to the Japanese the better.

    2. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

      Re: Yes, very impressive BT.

      So, call a local building company and your local planning office, find out what it would cost to lay a fibre along those 30-50 metres. Divide it by 20, get your neighbours to chip in. Then call BT back.

      1. circusmole

        Re: Yes, very impressive BT.

        @Phil O'Sophical - I don't think so; the County Council has handed out over £13M to BT to deliver a "broadband plan" (whatever that is - I've never been able to find out).

        The last time I looked the Council got most of it's money from me, and other tax payers. So paying again would be sort of stupid - just like your comment.

    3. Marvin the Martian

      Re: Yes, very impressive BT: "Let BT run Belgium"

      That's just adding cruelty to injury.

  5. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Martlesham Heath, PARC, Bell Labs

    IIRC the Joint Speech Research Unit (part of Dollis Hill) gave the world speech transmission at 1200bps in the late 1950s.

    All the institutions I listed may be world class research centres but apart from Prestel what is Adastral Park (I've only ever seen it called Martlesham or Martlesham Heath) actually known to the world for?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Martlesham Heath, PARC, Bell Labs

      Even into the 80s there was still JSRU-related work going on at Martlesham (the "Joint" aspect was GPO/BT + a bit of government) , I worked with the text-to-speech team there, taking original JSRU synthesis code that ran on a PDP-11 and getting it running first on a VME-based M68K system, then on a custom-designed single board. What else happened there? Lots of behind-the-scenes stuff, so that's maybe why it isn't "known" to the world. SDH network equipment , optical muxes, switch design, etc. Lots of radio stuff, that tower was a forest of dishes & aerials. Mostly low-level hardware, the software expertise was elsewhere in those days (hence my visits). And, of course, there was the mysterious 5th floor that we ordinary plebs weren't allowed into. Who knows what happened there.

      I have fond memories of lunches at the Maybush, sitting in the sun with a pint watching people just messing about in boats on the Deben. Fun days, when I was too junior to have to worry about project funding, economic crises and layoffs!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Martlesham Heath, PARC, Bell Labs

      I'm American and with a connection to the Intelligence Community in voice interception, so I know it for formerly having the Security Service's lawful domestic interception infrastructure there, some GCHQ stuff, as well as the site being the most likely candidate for the keying office of whatever the UK called/calls their STU-III equivalent.

      Conversely AT&T had their STU-III keying location at a Long Lines facility in the middle of fucking nowhere in Southern PA, near Raven Rock and Camp David, with a backup located near Mount Weather in Northern Virginia. Both are still active but the STU-III is no longer in widespread use.

      Anon for the bleeding obvious.

    3. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

      Spooky Daring Martlesham Heath ..... Win Win Win for All Caring Sharers in New VMarket Spaces

      All the institutions I listed may be world class research centres but apart from Prestel what is Adastral Park (I've only ever seen it called Martlesham or Martlesham Heath) actually known to the world for? ... John Smith 19 Posted Tuesday 26th March 2013 11:47 GMT

      Haven't you worked it out yet, John Smith 19? You don't need to know whenever things are need to know and sensitive.

      And per Ardua ad Meta Astra Strata is so much more than just a Few and New Kids and TitanICQ with SMARTR Colossus on the Block and in the Hood Projects for ProgramMING Dynasties*. Watch these Registered Virtual Space Places though, for all of the Info and Intel AI and IT and BT2 deems is required to be more generally well known for ...... well, SMARTR Applied Projects with Prime Primed Primary Principals Programming Presentation Protocols for Phorms and Phishes aka Uncovered and Recoverable Deep Packet Inspection Treasure and Zeroday Vulnerability Exploit Trove Futures and Derivative Farming with Proper Preparation and Planning Preventing Piss Poor Performance Back Up in Reserve and Special Reserve and ESPecial Reserve Forces.

      *Green Cabinet Field Programs for Fledgling States Administration and for Fledgling States Administrations [Alternative Political Party leaderships having a go at the helms of social control] in Administration [and making a pig's ear of IT and everything] and in Dire Straits. ...... 4BT2InterNetional Rescue.

  6. Anonymous Coward

    I miss working @Adastral

    I used to work on the 'secret' floor in the 'iconic' tower - The one that had the police guard outside and had a special thin-doored lift. (So secret, that every contractor who ever worked for BT FastTrack visited to update the MI5 phone monitoring software.) The restaurants were superb.

    1. M7S

      Re: I miss working @Adastral

      What was the significance and intent of the thin lift door? Does this refer to the aperture (no fatties allowed?) or the thickness of the door itself?

      1. Steve Evans

        Re: I miss working @Adastral

        It was probably a cheap Chinese (like their home router gear) lift, so made of this metal so you can free yourself with nothing more than a good kick when it inevitably breaks down twice a week.

  7. stu 4

    research my arse

    There are only a handful of engineers doing real research at Adastral these day - 200 max.

    The majority are just churning out software.

    And I notice no mention of the fact that a large proportion (500-1000) of the staff are actually near shore Mahindra (cheaper than the locals).

    stu - worked there for 10 years - and have lots of mates who still do.

    1. Tom 38

      Re: research my arse

      This, plus the fact that the research stopped in the late 90s when BT made redundant/retired almost all the research staff (and almost all the Greybeards).

      The whole reason it is 'Adastral Park' and not 'BT Research Laboratories' is that after this mass culling they found they had masses of empty office space, along with the only decent internet connection in Suffolk, so they became landlords instead.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        Re: research my arse

        And when 'Uncle' Ben Verwaayen added the clause that every contractor must take a 10% pay cut on every renewal.

      2. Jellied Eel Silver badge

        Re: research my arse

        Best example of BT R&D priorities then and now may be this-

        and it's inexorable shift from hardware to software. And outsourcing. Last published 2009.

  8. Spiracle

    Le Corbusier? Really?

    First I've heard of it. Influenced by, perhaps.

  9. KrisM
    Thumb Up

    back in the day...

    When I worked for BT in the early naughties, I blagged a day trip to the mad laboratory. After a quick meeting, got the tour, and saw some of the off the wall stuff they were working on. The office of the future always stuck in my mind - imagine sitting in a large egg shaped device, rotated vertically nearly onto your back, and surrounded by monitors, and all the modern comms equipment. Still waiting for that one...

    Had a chat with BT's own futureolgoist as well, which was an eye opener.

    Still never saw any of the sandal wearing, long bearded, lab-coated gents that were rumoured to populated the complex!!

    The pub down the road was pretty good as well!

    1. stu 4

      Re: back in the day...

      >Had a chat with BT's own futureolgoist as well, which was an eye opener.

      Was the eye opener "what a fucking arse-piece - the only thing imaginative about him was his octagonal glasses"

      Ian Pearson - a man devoid of any skills whatsoever. And for whom, imagination was an anathema.

      you'd often see him in the canteen with a film crew he'd manage to get in to shoot him with his crappy mock up 'computer on a wrist' ...." in the future we'll all have like computers on our wrist and... er... you know avatars and er.. some other shite I've just made up with my limited imagination"

      1. Rampant Spaniel

        Re: back in the day...

        Let's hope he got a patent for the whole computer on the wrist thing, he could have some fun with apple, samsung and lg :-)

      2. KrisM

        Re: back in the day...

        The couple of presentations I had from him were always interesting. Sure, they were a bit 'out there' in terms of what was predicted, but then thats a futureologist does! I'm sure he had plenty of stats to back things up. shame I don't have any of his slidepacks. Wonder who accurate he was 10 years on...

        maybe my youthful excitement, or rose tinted glasses have coloured my opinion tho...

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: back in the day...

          He's still at it:

          I met Dr Alan Rudge and got a better feel for future trends talking to him than I did listening to Ian "I invented text messaging" Pearson.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: back in the day...

        My favourite time was when there was an email outage @ Ratsalad.

        The traditional "sorry" email to everyone on site.

        Followed by Pearson sending a very whiny, stroppy, pompous email about how entirely unacceptable this was. People would lose their jobs etc.

        Only he hit "reply to all". It's possible he did this on purpose, in which case he's a nasty bully as well as a knob.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: back in the day...

      Another anecdote that comes to mind. In the famous storm of 1987 that reduced Sevenoaks to Oneoak some of the metal cladding on the tower block came unfastened, and was threatening to blow down onto the site. If it had done so it could have decapitated anyone below, so the site safety officer was called out in the small hours, and he ordered the site closed until it could be made safe.

      This safety officer's day job was as a relatively lowly technician grade, but as far as safety was concerned he was God. Around 8am or so a director rolled up for work, and was told the site was closed. Refusing to accept this he summoned said safety officer and demanded to be allowed in. He was refused, tried to pull Director rank on the technician, who stood his ground. Heated words were exchanged, with the Director eventually being told to F-off (as I heard it). He did, in a fury.

      Said director immediately called the chairman (Iain Vance at the time, IIRC) and insisted that the technician be fired for his behaviour. To the very great delight of the other technicians (and their union), the boss supported the safety officer and gave the director a considerable bollocking for being so stupid as to try and pull rank on a site safety officer, when he should be setting an example. Lots of smiles when that story went around, although I never found out which director it was.

      1. Dixie Nourmous

        Re: back in the day...

        That would be Iain Vallance..

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: back in the day...

          > Iain Vallance..

          Ack, nearly right. Thanks.

  10. SW

    Low tech badging

    For such a high-tech facility I feel a little 'let-down' by such a low-tech visitor badge.

    Where's the gizmos? Was there an RFID chip?

    Wasn't this the location where one famous (but can't remember his name right now) had a chip implanted so that the building would open/unlock doors for him?

    1. Tom 38

      Re: Low tech badging

      Kevin Warwick, and no, it wasn't.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Low tech badging

      Good old Ratsalad Park

      You used to be able to get on-site by folding up the right colour of crisp packet and waving it casually at the guards. I find it interesting that visitors are pointed to the pub rather than the on-site poisoner's palace.

      1. Tony Green

        Re: poisoner's palace

        During most of my years there (up to 2005) the staff canteen (sorry, Hub!) was so dire and over-priced that even in the worst weather it was still preferable to walk to the sandwich shop on the industrial estate. Fun to wind up the canteen manager by sitting in the lounge scoffing on bought-in grub though...

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Low tech badging

        Blockbuster video membership cards used to work too.

        I once was on call and arrived at 2am. I had to knock loudly on the gate house window to wake the security guard up to open the barrier. Should have just ducked under it, as I was on my bike rather than in a car.

  11. EssEll
    Black Helicopters

    Hi tech? Only the shoes...

    I worked here for a bit in the late 90s. From memory, there's a bridge linking two parts of the building. A notice was blu-tacked to the walls: "Do not pin anything into these walls as they contain asbestos".

    There might have been high tech going on in the rooms (I never saw any), but the building itself is a dump.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: asbestos

      The interior walls were all asbestos-cement firewalls. Safe, as long as you didn't make holes in them. The paperwork required just to get a cable duct from one lab to another was horrendous.

      Then again, I was sitting at a bench one windy day when I noticed some fine, feathery dust being blown onto the table. I told the lab tech, who called his boss, and I've never seen such a fast health and safety response! Lab cleared, hazmat vacuum cleaners, air samples, the works, all inside 10 minutes. Turned out to be harmless glassfibre from a false ceiling, but they weren't taking any chances!

  12. Aldous

    Fibre to 2/3rds

    yeah right, BT openreach are taking over 6 weeks to connect a single copper joint on the new build estate i am in. Sending the guy to wire the house before it was connected at the trunk end was also a smart move and it can't be sorted because the usual bloke who does this is on holiday!

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Hmm, yes, BT "released" most of their experienced engineers at the end of the eighties, early nineties. The ones left get to "manage" "off/onshore resources". Sounds terrific.

    That, and the fact that a funny handshake is a prerequisite for real career progress there, I'm surprised to see it described in such deferential terms. Does the author want to tell us something?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Is it just me or do masons always look like they're on their way to their weekly session with the dominatrix to do her cleaning? All they need is the masonic duster. Oh really? Well, they're all set then!

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Last time I was there, 2004-ish, Ben Verwaayen was terribly excited about a broadband fridge.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The good 'ole days are long gone...

    It was a great place to start my career, and I remember it and the people fondly. But I jumped before everyone was pushed.

    No regrets, but when telecom firms start talking about needlessly connecting [insert home appliance here] to the internet, its time to get out of the industry.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Blast from the past...

    I worked at AP (nee Martlesham Heath) for about a decade; we eventually ended up on the fifth floor when the secret squirrels were finally evicted; the mirrored glass and giant satellite dishes eventually followed them.

    I don't remember security being that strict - there were a few occasions when people sneaked back in huddled under a coat on the back seat of a car, after forgetting to take their pass to the Friday pub lunch. And I remember a few other bits and pieces: the mud hut tucked away at the back of the site near the tennis courts, the stash of gently mouldering telephone boxes, the giant koi carp in the pond behind the customer center, the antiquated clocks in the unrefurbished rooms at the top of the tower (next to the signs warning people not to drill into the walls due to the asbestos) and the giant shed where they used to run deep-sea pressure tests on underwater cables.

    (Oh, and I remember the kerfluffle back when Martlesham Heath was renamed to Adastral Park - IIRC, they made the mistake of announcing the new name before registering any domains, and some bright contractor got in there first...)

    However, it all started to get a bit "corporatized" in the mid-noughties. Out went the subsidised canteen (replaced by a contracted service offering "restaurant" style meals) and lots of the older buildings were demolished; a new (koi-less) lake was built in the middle of the site and a set of plasticated buildings dumped around them. We used to call them pig-pens and I'm guessing you can still see/hear/feel the first floor flex when people walk across them!

    At the time I left, they were trying to spin up AP as a business hub - other companies had started to set up shop there, and there was talk of hotels and some sort of university campus. I don't know if it's sad or interesting that they're still talking about such things, a good few years later...

    Finally, if you are visiting: the Maybush is pretty nice (and just on the riverside), but the Black Tiles was the preferred Friday-dinner place: hopefully it's still doing it's insanely huge plates of cheesy nachos...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Blast from the past...

      >a new (koi-less) lake was built in the middle of the site and a set of plasticated buildings dumped around them. We used to call them pig-pens and I'm guessing you can still see/hear/feel the first floor flex when people walk across them!

      Ah, the toxic lake and (when I was there) its juvenile herring gull inhabitant.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Blast from the past...

      > Out went the subsidised canteen

      Ah, I remember the 80s when any meeting booked with lunch automatically came with wine, one bottle per two attendees. We had 10-person meetings where only two of us drank red wine; even with our best efforts we had filing cabinet drawers full of unopened bottles waiting for the next office party.

      Then it went to "director approval required", then "director approval, and only with external visitors" and finally "no alcohol on site". Probably pushed the travel budget up, as the meetings were scheduled elsewhere...

      AC, obviously. Hic! :)

      1. Tom 7

        Re: Blast from the past...

        I'd forgotten about the wine! - £3.50 or so for a bottle of that cost £20 in the shops that some bright buyer had bought in by the lorry load.

        And the Adnams was bloody good too.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Blast from the past...

        > Then it went to "director approval required", then "director approval, and only with external visitors" and finally "no alcohol on site". Probably pushed the travel budget up, as the meetings were scheduled elsewhere...

        I was told that the sale of on-site alcohol was withdrawn when the security cameras caught some senior person trying to sneak several crates of stuff into the back of their car. It was certainly long gone by the time I got there :)

        However, IIRC, there was still an onsite store during my early years where you could buy "office supplies" (e.g. batteries) at cost. And even by the time I left, there were still some old-school surprises tucked away in various corners, such as the darkroom set up in a disused portacabin by the BT photographer society.

        However, something the article didn't touch on - and I'm guessing it's still significantly impacting BT's expansion plans - is that the site is heavily bottlenecked. There's only two exits; one feeds straight into a roundabout on the A14 - and the other (which only opens at rush hour) either feeds straight into the same roundabout, or another roundabout which has a Tescos sat atop it. By the time I left, car usage had grown drastically; BT ended up making all of the internal roads one-way, so people could park on the "unused" side; even with this, you could end up parking 5-10 minutes walk away from your building and once back to your car, at peak times it could literally take half an hour to get offsite.

        And don't get me started on the route 66 bus service. In some ways it was pretty advanced - they had digital displays on most of the bus-stops, and some sort of sensor built into key traffic lights to give the buses priority. However, it also took a detour around several large housing estates, turning what could have been a 10 minute journey into a 35+ minute journey. If you were working late at night and missed one, you could spend 20 minutes walking in a straight line and still catch the next bus at the point where it exited the final housing estate.

        There might have been an effort to put on an "express" bus later on - I can't remember for certain and I'd gotten a car by then and was working flexitime, so avoided the parking/peak hour issues. However, by this point, a significant percentage of the onsite workforce was contractors brought in from Tech Mahindra (which BT still owned shares in at the time) who were given accommodation in Ipswich, so the bus services also became heavily overloaded at peak times...

        In any case, I have to agree with other commentators: by the time I left (about 5 years ago), AP - and BT in general was very much transitioning away from "real" research and development: instead of developing new technologies internally, the focus switched to buying in and integrating 3rd party technologies. And even the integration work generally wasn't developed onshore: there was an explicit drive to have 90% of the resource for any project offshore, though in practice, there was an ongoing cycle of bringing offshore resource to the site and then sending them back offshore when upper management took a look at the budget figures and threw a fit.

        Still, what goes around, comes around: a few years later, I was mildly amused to see an internal press release touting the fact that some division was "experimenting" with the concept that an onshore, physically co-located team of permanent employees could be more efficient and effective...

        I had some good times there and worked with a lot of good, dedicated and talented people. But I'm far from sorry to have left both BT and AP...

  17. Tom 7

    A powerhouse of invention

    before privatisation. And for a while afterwards but I do remember being told, on presenting a plan for a microchip that would have cost $5US in development that 'we dont do research here anymore'. Last time I saw anything like it it cost BT $60,000 to buy in the boxes to do nearly the same thing from abroad.

    Bitter - well you would be when they wont fix your broadband because its copper and there are 10,000 poles with the red tickets on like mine.

  18. Nigel Titley

    Worked there for 20 years

    When I started in the late 70's it was a real research labs. So many things got invented there: the first long life transistors, blown fibre, modifications to trawl nets to reduce the damage caused to undersea cables, stored program control exchanges, DSL, echo cancellation for local lines, video on demand, high speed bi-direction telephone signalling, the list was endless. Then in the late 80's it started to spiral downhill as the bean counters took charge: the library was closed to make space for admin offices, the maths group was disbanded, less and less blue sky research got done and more and more software development and project management. Most of the inventive and imaginative "beards and sandals" folk (including myself) left for horizons new. It's a sad shadow of its former self; all glitter and little substance.

    1. Martin Kirk

      Re: Worked there for 20 years

      Hi Nigel. Yes, happy days. Been gone from BT Research for 23 years now, but it was a great first 15 years of my career. A lot of fun, and some great 'firsts'. Some great folk there in the 'good old days'.


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