Optical fibre cable, 1996

NatWest Group History 100 object 20: sample piece of optical fibre cable, 1996.

When it was made in the mid-1990s, this optical fibre cable had enough capacity to convey 500,000 simultaneous telephone calls. It was capable of carrying voice, text, music, TV pictures and computer data. In short, it made a lot of new things possible.

The Royal Bank of Scotland has a long history of pioneering the kind of video and telephone communications that were transformed by the introduction of fibre optic cable. In 1952 the Royal Bank of Scotland constituent Holt's became the first business in Britain to use a private television system, linking its offices at Osterley and Whitehall so that ledgers held at Osterley could be consulted in Whitehall, ten miles away.

In 1985, the bank was again at the forefront of television communications, this time as the first commercial customer of British Telecom's new VideoStream technology, which made videoconferencing realistically affordable in the UK for the first time.

The Royal Bank of Scotland had a particularly good reason to be keen on videoconferencing

By 1985, telecommunications companies had been trying for 20 years or more to find a cost-effective, easy way for customers to hold meetings by video. As business globalised and people increasingly needed to work with colleagues and customers in distant locations, the demand for such a service was clearly growing throughout the 1960s and 70s. It was not until the 1980s, however, that an effective new way to compress video pictures brought the goal within reach. VideoStream, which led the way in the UK, compressed the signal far enough to use the equivalent of just 30 phone lines, compared to 1,000 before.

The Royal Bank of Scotland had a particularly good reason to be keen on videoconferencing. The combination of companies that had come together to form the bank as it stood in 1985 gave it three strong geographical bases; a head office in Edinburgh, important core functions in London and also a significant presence in Manchester. Videoconferencing equipped the bank to maintain these separate bases, with staff in all three locations working easily with each other. When required, meetings could be held at short notice, allowing rapid decision-making. Even where travelling to meetings would have been possible, videoconferencing offered an alternative that saved time, money and - an increasing concern from the 1980s onwards - environmental resources.