The farms, Roman ruins and narrow lanes of southeast England hardly look like fertile ground for high-tech finance.
Yet it’s the tiny Kent village of Richborough -- 80 miles (129 kilometers) east of the wheeling and dealing of London’s stock, bond and currency markets -- that a group of computerized-trading firms have identified as key to their future. They want to build radio masts as tall as the Eiffel Tower to create the fastest communication link between the U.K. capital and Frankfurt and trade securities at close to the speed of light. A decision on whether one or more gets the go-ahead is due as early as next month.
It would be a trophy for high-speed traders finding it harder each year to gain an edge over rivals. What stands in their way are the local residents and officials who want to know what’s in it for them. As plans for the 300-meter-plus (980 feet) constructions progress, the mainly U.S.-based companies are promising inducements to win hearts and minds. The question is whether it’s enough in a conservative corner of Britain increasingly reliant on tourism after Pfizer Inc. shut a nearby site five years ago.
“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that will make the area a place where people want to go on holiday,” said Henry Quinn, 58, who worked for Pfizer for two decades and lives in the nearby town of Sandwich. He opposes the project. “I don’t know anyone who is in favor of it.”
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Two companies so far have applied for permission from the local municipality: Vigilant Global, part of Chicago-based DRW Holdings, was the first in January, followed by New Line Networks, a joint venture between U.S. financial firms Jump Trading and KCG Holdings, in May. Two others have held talks with officials, McKay Brothers and Latent Networks, both of which provide microwave networks to high-speed traders.
High-speed trading is like Formula One motor racing in that the companies can’t reinvent the basic vehicle for speed, but they can try to make it fractionally quicker. They build radio towers with dishes because, for now at least, microwave signals are among the fastest ways to transmit orders between exchanges.
The proposed radio tower in Kent is among the last remaining opportunities using known technology to plot a direct route across the English Channel. With a tall enough tower, a trading firm can send data to dishes in Belgium via the straightest possible line.
The decision on whether one or more giant towers get built will probably come in August or September at what is expected to be one of the most attended meetings in Dover District Council’s history. Frederick Scales, chairman of the planning committee, declined to say which way it was leaning. “It will be a balanced decision,” he said.
The planned masts provide no direct benefit to local residents and that’s what makes them a tougher sell. An adjacent project to connect Richborough to the high-voltage electricity network at least would help keep the lights on.
“There’s always a balancing act,” said Iain Gilbey, a partner at law firm Pinsent Masons who specializes in infrastructure planning. “Harm is counterbalanced by the public benefits that accrue from it.”
While some residents canvassed by Bloomberg reporters last month said they weren’t really concerned, at least three smaller parish councils already objected to the two radio mast applications, though they lack the power to block them.
The one in Sandwich didn’t stand in the way, but it said there should only be one mast that the companies would have to share. It’s an option that McKay’s co-founder Stephane Tyc said would be “unbelievably tricky” because of the doubts over fair access and a joint venture would be a better approach.
Other issues include concerns over health, and of course who stands to make money. Dover council’s website received more than 90 public comments on Vigilant’s plan, with one claiming the “only people to gain will certainly not live anywhere near this.” It received 178 public responses to the application by New Line Networks and one bemoaned “money-market traders” filling their “greedy boots.”
That’s a mindset the companies are trying to change, while local lawmaker Craig Mackinlay and his staff are trying to leverage Richborough’s location. Mackinlay, who backed Britain leaving the European Union in last month’s referendum, is acting as a go-between to put the “best deal possible on the table” before decision day, according to his chief of staff, Samuel Armstrong.
“We’ve had a chance to extract a bit for the community,” Armstrong said at a meeting at Westminster in London, where he brought along a big, blue binder titled “Masts.”
Vigilant is giving a school in Sandwich money for a new sound system. It also is offering 30,000 pounds ($39,400) for a new guidebook to the town and signs for a coastal walk, plus a further 100,000 pounds for the Richborough Roman Fort. The English Heritage website describes it as “perhaps the most symbolically important of all Roman sites in Britain.”
“Vigilant Global has worked with the local planning authority and the community around Richborough for well over a year,” Eric Bellerive, director of global networks at the company, said by e-mail. “This engagement has enabled us to prepare a comprehensive community benefits package.”
New Line Networks meanwhile has been showing off its submitted plans in town halls and sent out more than 7,000 flyers. A spokesperson said the company was working with local officials, environmental groups and residents on a proposal that’s designed to benefit all parties and secure an ongoing relationship with the community.
Armstrong said all companies are considering a minimum 100,000 pound-a-year community fund as a sweetener, equivalent to twice what Sandwich Town Council budgets for its public toilets, play areas, CCTV and photocopier.
The money isn’t nearly enough for Henry Quinn, however.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “They’re just trading quicker than other people. One hundred thousand pounds? They probably do that in a few nanoseconds.”