Wi-fi expert Allan is a man with all the right connections

Allan Milburn
Allan Milburn
Have your say

ALLAN Milburn went off to see the world when he was 22, now the world comes to see him.

The former steelworks turner who once scraped barnacles off boats in the south of France for £30 a day is now the ‘go-to guy’ of the wi-fi age.

His company installed wireless computer connections to London’s Olympic Park to serve 300,000 people for the 2012 games - and he’s expecting to help out with connectivity at the 2016 games in Brazil.

He even had a panic call from New Orleans before American football’s Superbowl XLVII in February asking for help with the wi-fi at the Mercedes Benz Superdome.

Not bad for the middle kid of seven Milburns from Attercliffe who was made redundant from Brown Bailey’s Steelworks - where Richard Caborn was his shop steward - when he was 21.

And there’s much more to Allan Milburn than that.

He left to go travelling and always intended to follow the hippy trail to Marrakesh and come back and go to university - 37 years on he’s still done neither of those things.

But there have been some sensational distractions along the way.

His travels in the 1980s - initially with some old snooker mates from Park and Arbourthorne club - took him from France to the Greek islands, Iraq, India, Thailand and beyond and eventually to Australia where he worked with disabled youngsters - after driving 3,000 miles from Perth to Sydney.

“I met up with an Australian guy who was driving back to Sydney so I decided to go with him,” said 55-year-old Allan, now of Ridgeway, Sheffield.

“He turned up in a 1966 Holden car with a brick and a case of 24 beers. The brick went on the accelerator and he sat with his feet out of the window drinking beer most of the way there. You could see a truck coming the other way for 20 miles so there was plenty of time to sort yourself out. All you see is bush and kangaroos. I counted 450 dead ones at the sides of the road before I got sick of counting.

“They try and hop across the road - 500 at a time sometimes and - the trucks just plough through them.”

After working and travelling along Australia’s east coast Allan came back to Sheffield, but not the Sheffield he remembered.

“The Sheffield I left in 1980 was not the one I came back to in 1984. The Sheffield I left was booming and the one I came back to was desperate.

“My brother picked me up from Heathrow and when we came back in off the motorway where Meadowhall is now all you could see coming in to town was burning derelict buildings and rubble. It brought a tear to my eye as we came past in the car”.

In 1984 Allan was hoping to start a degree in sociology and psychology to help further his ambition to work with teenagers with learning difficulties and had been accepted at Sheffield University.

But because he had been out of the country for more than three years he was classed as an overseas student and asked to fork out £5,000 in fees.

That didn’t happen.

Instead he went to London working on installing telephone cables as the newly privatised telecoms business went boom.

“I went as a labourer helping to install the metal containment for the new telephone wires. After a while I was bringing ex-miners and steel workers from Sheffield to work down there. One of those I worked with was Lee Strafford’s dad, the Lee Strafford who went on to start Plusnet and became chairman of Sheffield Wednesday. He brought Lee down to work with us when he was 14 and asked me to keep an eye on him. He was a cheeky sod at that age but he did well and is a big name in communications now.”

Allan started his IT Installations company as a one-man operation 20 years ago.

Now he employs 38 staff in premises at Aizelwood’s Millon Nursery Street and the company has a £4 million annual turnover. Providing the wifi connection for the Olympic Park last year is his most high-profile job so far.

“It was the first games to really have to cope with the demand for social media,” added father of two Allan.

“We had 30 staff down there working shifts around the clock for Cisco and BT from December to August until the Olympics started and then a maintenence crew during the games making sure the 300,000 spectators were covered in Olympic Park, plus the main stadium, nine venues and the athletes village.

“We installed 300 antennae around the stadium, park and village built around street lighting with all brackets and steelwork done in Sheffield.“

President Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony of 2009 taught the communications world a huge lesson.

Wi-fi signals and people don’t mix.

For the US President’s big day hundreds of wi-fi antennae were placed under seats so the crowds could tweet and facebook their way through the ceremony.

But it didn’t work. The signals just wouldn’t pass efficiently through that many people.

So when it came to the 2012 Olympics the answer came like someone switching on a light - a street light.

“The biggest problem they had at Obama’s inauguration is that people are 80 per cent water and wi-fi doesn’t like water,” said Allan Milburn.

“We knew from that that we had to get the antennae above the crowd so there were 300 TV sized antennae placed by us on lamposts around the Olympic Park and on brackets at the back of the stadium - all made and sprayed in Sheffield to be colour co-ordinated with the stadium panels of course.

“It worked really well.”

Inspired by VW camper van

IT WAS on one of the umpteen 300-mile round-trips to the Olympic Park that the idea came to him.

Camper Vans.

The ageing hippy in Allan Milburn saw a chance to relive part of his youth, the businessman in him saw a chance to make a few quid.

His IT Communications company was ferrying men, women and materials from Sheffield to the Olympic Park in Stratford, East London, most days a week in a fleet of VW vans.

“VW vans still have the appeal, their brand is known throughout the world and the camper van capitals are Los Angeles, Cornwall and Australia,” said Allan.

“We were going to sell the vans off then I thought of converting them to campers. It costs £12,000 to convert a van and we decided to try one and had it done in Cornwall. It worked out well. They have two double beds and fold-out roof, cooker, fridge, ipod connections and high speed wifi of course and are very nicely done and bigger than the 1960s ones.

“We have had people try out the first one and they loved it. We are hoping to have five or so to start renting out next April for the summer season, we’re calling it The VW Camper Experience.”

A longer term project for Allan is the restoration of a 1958 - the year of his birth - split-screen VW camper van he found abandoned in a barn in the south west of England. That’s going to cost him £6,000 to buy and a lot more to restore.

“I haven’t bought it yet but it sounds like a good idea...”