Top techie at Adastral Park hangs up his lab coat

The team at the Huawei 's  Ipswich Research Centre at Adastral Park, Martlesham

Retiring research boss Michael Robertson, centre front, at Huawei's research centre at Adastral Park with the team. Operations director John Turton, is second left and collaboration director Michael Hill King, left. Front row fourth from left is ZhouBo, director of Ipswich Research Centre - Credit: Huawei

A top fibre-optics technician based at Martlesham admits he is disappointed at the speed of rollout of the UK’s full fibre network as he prepares to retire.

Michael Robertson spent four decades researching and developing high-speed communications – latterly as research and collaboration manager at what became Huawei’s research centre at Adastral Park, near Ipswich.

The 66-year-old – who is planning low-key retirement celebrations with friends – is one of the UK’s longest-serving optical communications experts and has been working at the same facility from the days when it was run by the Post Office Research Centre. 

Huawei's Ipswich Research Centre

Huawei's Ipswich Research Centre at Adastral Park - Credit: Huawei Technologies Research & Development (UK) Ltd

The lab facility then became part of Post Office Telecommunications’ successor British Telecom, which was formed in 1980 and was then state-owned. It became a central part of its drive to develop fibre-optics technology. Two decades on the Photonics Technology Group was sold to US-based Corning just before the dot.com boom in 2000.

In 2003, Corning laid off the entire workforce but the facility, then known as the Centre for Integrated Photonics, was taken over by the East of England Development Agency (EEDA) and the Centre for Integrated Photonics (CIP) was formed.

The centre’s fortunes took another challenging turn after then-prime minister David Cameron decided to abolish development agencies. However, it was snapped up in 2012 by Huawei, a Chinese-based company founded by Ren Zhengfei in a move which at the time was welcomed by Suffolk Coastal MP Therese Coffey, who said it added further strength to the reputation of Adastral Park.

A group shot of the Huawei research team at Adastral Park in2015 with Huawai founder Ren Zhengfe, fourth from left

A group shot of the Huawei research team at Adastral Park taken in 2015 when Huawai founder Ren Zhengfe, fourth from left, visited the site - Credit: Huawei Technologies Research & Development (UK) Ltd

Michael and the team work on technology which converts data to optical pulses, sending it along fibre-optic cables at the highest possible speeds, then converting it back into electric signals at the other end. 

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When he started out, researchers were working on prototypes with speed of 8MB per second. Today, the technology can reach 50GB per second – 6,000 times faster.

Looking back over his career, he said his one regret is that the UK and communications giant BT didn’t invest sooner in fibre-to-the-home – an opportunity which he felt should have been seized a decade ago.

Now the government is playing catch-up, he said. “It’s a disappointment. In 2019, the UK was actually bottom of the list in Europe for fibre-to-the-home. We’re now something like 30th,” he said.

In the past decade, the workforce has more than doubled to around 200, making products sold around the world. Ren Zhengfei has twice visited the facility.

“My work is based around lasers and detectors for optical fibre systems. It’s a specialised field, but we all rely on them. Calls you make over Zoom for instance, you’ll be using technology we have developed,” said Michael.

“I remember thinking when I started out that we may one day get video phones but the change we have seen has been incredible really. The amount of data traffic travelling on Britain’s network is going up by 25 per cent a year. So the challenge is to develop technology that can cope with this traffic increase, finding new ways of getting more data down the optical fibres and at the same time doing it more cheaply.”

Michael Robinson, right, and John Turton, operations director at Huawei Technologies Research & Development (UK) Ltd

Michael Robinson, right, shaking hands with John Turton, operations director at Huawei Technologies Research & Development (UK) Ltd - Credit: Huawei Technologies Research & Development (UK) Ltd

Michael joined the centre after graduating with a PhD in physics from Durham University in 1979, and remained after the sale to Huawei. 

“The cultural transition has worked very well. Huawei was a lot more focused on results within tight timescales, but there is a lot of mutual respect. And the company is run by engineers and technologists,” he said.

“The founder, Ren Zhengfei, has visited twice. Apparently on a trip to London, he once asked his team: ‘Take me to somewhere that does real science,’ so they brought him here and we showed him round. Some might say I’ve had a boring career, spending 42 and half years in one place, but I’ve covered a lot of different aspects of the optoelectronic technologies in that time and really enjoyed it.”

Michael Hill-King, collaboration director at Huawei UK, said: “Michael’s career at Martlesham Heath, latterly Adastral Park, is a journey through the development of the optoelectronics industry. He has been an inspiration to many people in the field and is respected across the UK photonics landscape.

He’ll be too humble to say it, but his work has benefited anyone in the UK with an internet connection.”

Michael is not the longest serving employee – one worker at the site began three weeks before him and is still there.

The political mood over Huawei’s involvement in the UK telecommunications network has changed radically since it acquired CIP. The Conservative government was previously keen to develop the relationship but security fears later surfaced after the US imposed sanctions against the telecoms company.

The UK government announced in July 2020 that Huawei would be completely removed from the UK’s 5G networks by the end of 2027 following advice from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) on the impact of the US sanctions. The government also advised full fibre operators to transition away from purchasing new Huawei equipment.