Reformer who retuned TalkTalk's engine: Now the broadband upstart is on track, Dido Harding has child safety in her sights
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) As Dido Harding perches on the edge of a large sofa, casting her mind back over the four years since she became chief executive of the broadband provider TalkTalk, the smell of popcorn wafts up from the lobby below her office.
Staff are celebrating after the upstart rival to Sky, BT and Virgin Media just signed its 1 millionth TV customer.
Harding says there were times when it seemed this moment would never come. "My mental analogy for TalkTalk," she confides, "is an ageing Ford Cortina going flat out in the fast lane of the M4 in the pouring rain. We are always hammering along faster than anybody thinks is sensible, with things not quite working, but huge enthusiasm."
Harding set about retuning the TalkTalk engine, which was sometimes painful. "I've stood in front of 500 extremely angry people in Waterford when we closed a call centre there. That's not fun, and the day you think it is fun is the day you shouldn't be doing it."
The reward came last week, when TalkTalk declared it had added more TV customers over the past year than all of its larger rivals put together. Admittedly only 28% of them watch paid content, but everyone spends at least pounds 8.50 a month for the service.
Along the way, Harding has found time for two other projects, both of which could have bigger repercussions. The first culminated last week in the founding of Internet Matters, a website backed by all four big internet providers designed to help parents protect their children online.
Harding has made the issue of child internet safety something of a personal crusade. Before she joined TalkTalk the company had been developing Homesafe, an optional filter to screen out unsuitable content, but she made sure it saw the light of day. As a mother of two girls, now aged seven and eight, she felt the need to act.
"These can so easily become polarised issues of moral philosophy, from the free internet rights brigade at one end of the spectrum to the Mary Whitehouse anti-porn brigade at the other, and then no one agrees with anyone on anything and nothing happens. Launching Homesafe made it seem possible in everybody's minds."
As a member of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, she campaigned for the rest of the industry to follow suit. Soon, politicians joined in. At a summit last November, David Cameron urged BT, Sky and Virgin to install filters. By the end of this year, every one of their customers will have a block switched on unless they opt out.
"Internet safety is quite like the road safety issues when I was growing up. You had 'clunk-click' advertising and the Green Cross man coming into schools to talk to children." Harding wants a green cross code for the digital world, including online safety lessons in the national curriculum in primary schools.
Born the Honourable Diana Harding, she is an unlikely technology boss. The granddaughter of Field Marshall John Harding, who commanded the Desert Rats in the second world war, she graduated from Oxford. In the early years, she put her 5ft 2in frame to good use by moonlighting as a jockey. At the same time, she climbed the corporate ladder, with a stint at consultants McKinsey followed by senior roles at Tesco and then J Sainsbury.
Her husband is the Conservative MP and government whip John Penrose, and the prime minister was her contemporary at Oxford. But Harding vehemently denies she used such political connections to advance the child safety agenda. "I promise you I try very hard to stay out of party politics. I run away from it. The right I have had to speak on the subject is because of TalkTalk, not because of anything to do with what my husband does."
Harding's second big project is just beginning. Until now, TalkTalk has relied on BT's network to get broadband to its customers. That could be about to change. A pilot joint venture in York will see the firm team up with Sky and fibre-optic specialist CityFibre to connect 200,000 homes. This network will be funded by loans from infrastructure investors, with the future revenue from Sky and TalkTalk customers as collateral. If the project is a success, Harding wants to target all cities with populations of 50,000-100,000.
Many say this is a threat designed to force BT to lower its charges. Harding says: "It is not about TalkTalk investing hundreds of millions in digging up roads. We bring customers. That is what enables it to be funded through debt. That's why the share price hasn't tanked, plus the fact that we are, as a company, serially underestimated."
Dido Harding's push for online safety has led to the Internet Matters initiative Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian
(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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