Paul Reynolds (above) is bursting with enthusiasm to talk
about BT's 21st Century Network project, which aims to replace
virtually the whole of the company's UK networks with a single
IP-based network within a frighteningly short time.
"It's what gets me out of bed in the morning," he says, "the
opportunity to do this once-in-a-career thing."
The first big test for 21CN will be in the second half of
the year, when it is put into operation in the Cardiff area.
The conventional telephone network will be switched off, along
with a number of data networks. If it doesn't work, if the
people and businesses of Cardiff wake up one morning in July or
August with no telecommunications network, Reynolds will have
some tough explanations to give.
But there are months of planning and implementation to go
before then, and if Reynolds does have doubts at three in the
morning, he's not showing them now.
Famously tall, he's now in his late 40s and he's worked in
BT since 1983. Now he occupies one of the most spectacular
offices in London. Stand on London's famous wobbly bridge
— the Millennium footbridge over the River Thames
— with your back to the Tate Modern art gallery and
look just to the left of St Paul's Cathedral. Faraday House, BT
Wholesale's headquarters, is the white multi-storey building
that dominates the scene, built decades before planning rules
were introduced to protect the famous vista of the cathedral
The human challenge
But we're not here to admire the scenery from his office.
"When we talk about 21CN we talk about all-IP," says Reynolds,
with his back to the view. "We talk about new products and
services, we talk about cost reduction, we talk about
technologies, but what I emphasise is the human challenge of
programmes like this. They are the most significant thing."
BT is pretty much out on its own in saying that it is to
close down the PSTN, the conventional public switched telephone
network, to replace it with an all-IP network. Is Reynolds
concerned about this? Why is there no stampede of other
operators following BT?
"There's a lot of apprehension," says Reynolds, and it's
clear he means apprehension in other incumbents. "We might have
sleepless nights over getting the job done, but others are
having sleepless nights because they don't see a clear path
forward. They're just gradually committing to the same plans
we've been on for a couple of years."
They are doing it, "my suppliers tell me", says Reynolds.
"They're all going down the same road but they're a length of
Which ones have said they're doing the same thing? "Telstra
has, KPN has, Telecom Italia — it's not quite as
comprehensive but it's a similar period of time to us
— and Deutsche Telekom announced their fibre and NGN
plans, France Telecom," says Reynolds. "But they've not been
quite so public or quite so bold."
Should he be worried about that or surprised by that?
Reynolds explains the rationale behind such a drastic,
unforgiving changeover schedule that he and his colleagues have
adopted for BT.
"How do you get to a competitive cost base and still run 16
legacy networks? Anybody got an answer for that?" he asks.
Network number 17
"We have 16 networks — PSTN, broadband, ATM, and
you can actually make it more than 16 — and all these
are data, multimedia and voice platforms that can be run on one
single network. So the one single network is an NGN. When you
start to build it you've not simplified or cut costs, you've
begun to add costs — because you're on network number
That means there is only a limited time that it's
economically feasible to keep the new network and all the old
networks running together. "For us that time is five years,
maybe six years, to do the job and shut the rest down. That's
the only way it works: you have to get it done and built and
away in five or six years."
The aim is "to go to a single multi-service network in order
to get to a competitive cost base and a competitive service
So, is he worried that BT is still the only incumbent still
to have announced such a demanding schedule? "No, I'm surprised
rather than worried. I think the plan for 21C is certainly bold
and scary. But staying still and not going for this is scarier
So why haven't more incumbents followed. "I think there's
quite a bit of collective head in the sand," he says. "The
issue is not whether this is the right thing to do. The issue
is how do you get it done, how do you execute. And you can't
begin to tackle those issues until you start."
So in these other operators, is the main barrier the CFO or
the CTO? "I would have thought the CFO would want to do it and
the CTO might say there are technological and operational
issues," smiles Reynolds. "What we have done is put the whole
lot into a business plan."
He appears to believe that engineers are, in the main, more
conservative than financial people. "If you ask the engineering
community how long it would take, and how much life there is in
the PSTN yet, and how long it would take us to build [21CN] and
you would get estimates of 10-15 years."
But, he adds, "that doesn't answer your business problem:
your cost base is going to be too high, your product
flexibility is going to be too low, the competition coming from
various multimedia players over the internet would be still
rising, but you're letting your response be dictated by that
sort of traditional leadership of the business".
It's scary, he admits. "The challenge is enormous. I'd be
much more terrified if we were still running the PSTN at the
end of the decade. The others who haven't got a public plan
haven't got that solved."
Global network plans
And he believes that BT will gain in the world market from
21CN. "We will have a global network as well, because what
we're doing is taking our UK capability to catch up with our
global capability, where we already have an all-IP network.
Britain's a small place in the global community. We will have a
single global technology with one technology standard, one
service creation platform, one set of product managers, one set
of network managers, and the efficiencies that that gives
So let's turn to the practicalities of getting 21CN up and
running in the UK. "We're in a very detailed planning phase
with our vendors," says Reynolds. "The suppliers have been
working in teams and producing very detailed deployment plans.
We're absolutely on schedule for our plan to begin migration of
customers in the second half of the year."
And that's the trial network in Cardiff? "It's not a trial
network," Reynolds retorts. "It's the beginning of mass
Cardiff, the capital city of Wales and home of the new Welsh
Assembly, was chosen for the 21CN Pathfinder, he explains,
because there is "a full spectrum of service providers" as well
as a wide variety of users. And the political infrastructure in
Wales was supportive: "The Welsh executive and the public
policy framework in south Wales was outstanding. There's a
group of people who know what this is about. It's been a
wake-up call for other areas of the UK. Some are really on the
ball but not quite at that level."
When will the first 21CN customer in Cardiff be connected?
He won't say more than "the second half of 2006: nearer the
time we'll have a kick-off date", but he's clear that he's
looking towards a smooth extension to the rest of the UK.
"We're building the core now — right now we're
clearing out, auditing and doing all the inventory management
on sites the length and breadth of the country," says Reynolds.
"We've got a roll-out map and we're consulting with industry,
exchange by exchange."
The big cities will be converted first "and it will be a
very compressed time-frame". The other operators have to
coordinate their work with BT, he points out: "Everybody has to
build an NGN at the same time — AOL, Cable &
Wireless, Wanadoo. They all have to go in step."
And at that point he succumbs to temptation to wonder why
other incumbents are not following BT's example. "To be
competitive you have to have an all-IP network to compete
against the Skypes, the Vonages, and whatever else is coming
along," he says. "If you have to get there in the next four or
five years to be cost competitive and have the platform to
deliver new services, why haven't you committed to it?"
And, he adds: "How do you think you can get there if you
haven't committed to it?" Every player in the industry has to
interconnect with the incumbent, so moving to all-IP has to be
done publicly. "You can't shut down the rest of the competitive
industry in your market. You have to take them with you."
And that's the scale of 21CN in the UK, he says: "We're not
just moving BT, we're moving the whole market. It's much more
complicated than the technology." In Cardiff BT is already in
detailed discussion with all the other operators about
interconnecting, so they can all move to all-IP at the same
Won't feel a thing
So what will the end user see on that fateful day? "The
customer service model for Pathfinder is that you won't feel a
thing. That's as it should be."
So when a politician in the second half of the year asks
what all this was for, and wonders why they're getting the same
dial tone as they got last week, what will he say? What's the
"We are progressively launching a new set of broadband and
ethernet services on the back of 21CN," says Reynolds. "We've
got a suite of services, new services that will be available on
day one. What you'll see is us talking about the new service
set and the benefits the customers will get — and as
we roll it out across the rest of the country the 21C product
set will widen."
These products will include ethernet, higher speed
broadband, service managed broadband. BT is consulting with
other operators over the possibilities that will arise from
21CN, but carefully. "We don't want to create false demand that
can't be delivered. Our utter focus is on building a platform
that can deliver. The big and exciting new services are going
to come through in 2007 and 2008, as we roll forward from
Cardiff," says Reynolds.
"We will use Cardiff as the first phase in proving our
methodologies for introducing the technology, for creating that
'you won't feel a thing' process, which is vital. Then we'll
see service creation." GTB
See also interview with Steve Robertson of BT