Telstra CTO Hugh Bradlow looks forward to getting beyond the
point at which he worries about the last-mile network
technology into customers’ homes. He wants Telstra
to be a services company
Hugh Bradlow: Take away the worry about the network and you
force us to think about being service providers
Australia’s national broadband network is the best
thing that’s happened to the
country’s incumbent operator, Telstra. Take a deep
breath when you read that, because the person saying it is
Telstra’s chief technology officer, Hugh Bradlow.
Given that Telstra’s former CEO, Sol Trujillo, ran
a running battle with the Australian government while the NBN
project was being developed, this is a surprising turn. But
these days Telstra, under CEO David Thodey, takes a very
different attitude — and Bradlow, who has been with
the company for 15 years, is clearly in agreement. (See GTB
interviews with Trujillo here and with Thodey here)
"I believe in the economic benefit of high-speed broadband," he
says. "It will be an incredible legacy for our kids —
but, like any large engineering project, it’s
The sort of network that the Australian government is planning
"would be a basis for refocusing the economy", he says. "For
Telstra it’s the best thing that’s
happened to us." Though he admits: "It may not seem like it at
Why is it so good? Because, says Bradlow, it allows Telstra to
stop thinking about access networks. Fibre running into every
Australian home will take away from operators the need to worry
about what sort of broadband to install and how to upgrade it.
"We can start thinking about the services: home and business
services, such as health and education."
His eyes gleam with the prospects of what telecommunications
can contribute to the economy. For example,
Telstra’s home city of Melbourne is looking at
what it will need if it expands — as is expected
— from a population of 3.5 million to five million in
The roadbuilders are looking eagerly at the work they will have
to do — but, points out Bradlow, "we need to make
tough decisions about fewer roads and better occupancy of
cars". Telecoms "gives you the ability to schedule" and to
And "20 years is a long time in technology", he smiles,
thinking of Moore’s law, devised by Gordon Moore,
one of the founders of Intel. This notes that the number of
devices on a microchip doubles every two years: Moore
formulated his observation in 1965, based on data back to 1958,
and the rule holds good today.
"We’re talking about a 4,000-fold
Moore’s law improvement in technology," says
Bradlow of what we can expect in the next 20 years. Instead of
calculating how many more hospital beds they will need in
Melbourne by 2030, politicians should start thinking of
"In Australia we built an 800-bed hospital for $800 million
— that’s $1 million a bed." He shakes his
head: "The NBN will be good for Australians. A lot of
opportunity will come from it."
Software and services
The future is about software and services but in the past "the
main concerns have been about the network". Take away the worry
about the network "and you force us to think about being
service providers", says Bradlow.
It’s a revealing attitude for someone who is an
out-and-out technologist: a graduate in electrical engineering
who did research into nuclear physics and later became a
professor of computer engineering.
The technology of shared networks is making fixed network
operators change the way they work. "We’ve got to
be more like a shopping centre," he says. An operator has
certain features such as billing and quality of service and
"stuff round the cloud", he notes, "but there is a
non-exclusive ecosystem because you have Google and Amazon and
they’re not going away".
But that’s Bradlow’s law for a common
fibre-to-the-home infrastructure for fixed networks.
Bradlow’s law for wireless networks is very, very
different: "Network sharing is a race to the bottom," he says.
Network quality is a clear differentiator for mobile, though.
"The mobile network is less of a utility than a fixed network",
he says — simply because "a radio network is less easy
to design". Telstra's 3G network, branded Next G, runs at 42 megabits a second.
For FTTH networks, you put the fibre in "and
that’s 80% of the cost", but it costs less to
maintain. "It’s less prone to noise and corrosion.
It’s in-place inventory. It will last 100 years in
its ability to deliver capacity. We’re just
starting a journey here."
Not with wireless networks, though. There are serious issues
with spectrum capacity, he warns — even though
Australia and other countries are looking forward to the
so-called "digital divided" as analogue broadcasting services
are booted off the airwaves.
Bradlow and his colleagues have been looking at what spectrum
may be available over the next few years and what the demand
will be. "We will need more spectrum than we can foresee being
available to meet the expected demand," he says.
And that’s even if the operators can use all the
white space between the TV channels and take away as much of
the military’s spectrum as they can. "Of course,
we don’t know what they use it for so we
can’t tell them it’s not important.
They have the benefits of secrecy."
Won’t LTE help? Broadcasters have a chunk of LTE
spectrum for their outside broadcasts, he notes. "We are trying
to make the government recognise it’s not a good
use of spectrum." And LTE Advanced will need 100 megahertz of
With other users cluttering up the spectrum and preventing
mobile operators using sensible sections, "it’s a
bit like having a broken-down shed in an acre of prime real
estate," he grumbles. "It’s just not economically
Yes, there is a raft of new radio technologies, including
directional antennas and mimo — or "multiple-input
multiple-output" — which will squeeze a bit more out
of the spectrum. "But you can only go so far. It’s
not an order-of-magnitude improvement."
The technological target for the carrying capacity of LTE
Advanced is five bits per hertz of bandwidth, compared with two
bits per hertz for today’s HSPA. So, an
improvement of two and a half times — a few
months’ growth in data at current rates of
Compare that with what technologists such as Bradlow can
confidently expect out of FTTH. He can identify techniques that
will boost the capacity of each fibre by 40 or 100 times.
"Things are going up."
And the capacity will be needed, as high-definition screens
become common. "The cost per pixel on a screen is starting to
fall dramatically. And the number of pixels is going up."
Bradlow can already see the uses now for the bandwidth that
FTTH will promise over the many decades that the fibre will
last: many TV sets around the home, but other high-definition
displays too, all using up bandwidth.
"But the radio network is totally different," he adds. With
wireless, you have to keep investing — and "shared
networking is a disincentive to investment", he notes. Bradlow
is proud of the 3G network that Telstra runs in Australia on
the 850 megahertz band: "Our indoor coverage is so good that I
can keep my laptop logged onto our VPN even when
I’m in the lift."
The network experience "is critical with customers", he warns.
"The network does have a major impact in the way customers feel
At that point Bradlow, speaking during a trip to London,
grumbles about the network quality he’s found
while away from his home network. "I’ve had more
dropouts in the last two days here than I’ve had
in the last two years in Australia." His network experience has
not been good.
If there’s a good network in operation Bradlow is
happy to talk about the "post-broadband world", when services
and not network quality will be the issue. "The key to running
services is being seamless," he says. And services will work
across both fixed and mobile networks. "We’re
still slowly working our way there. With time it will happen."
When? Bradlow offers "2011 or later — I’m
not sure which year", but soon, as he declares that this will
allow "telepresence, office communications services, rich
presence" and so on: "A rich media connection with presence to
give you details of people’s connectivity and
their willingness to take calls."
And the services will have to operate across fixed and mobile
networks "if they’re to be of any value", he
notes: "If you’re a consumer you will want to
connect with the most convenient system."
Telstra is starting to deploy cloud services for small and
medium-sized businesses, including workforce management systems
and compliance software to help business owners follow
Apart from telepresence and other business services, what
opportunities will there be for Telstra in the bandwidth-rich
world? "There will be mainstream service opportunities for us,
but we are subject to much wider competition," he says. One of
the big opportunities is Microsoft Office.
But one of the biggest is security. "It’s not a
technology problem. It’s a people and process
problem. Everyone faces the same threats." But if a small
business can’t afford the services that a large
company such as Telstra has. "We’ve got to do it
and it’s a marginal cost" to offer it to others.
Bradlow is clearly excited at the list of services that Telstra
can offer via its wireless broadband network and
NBN’s future fixed broadband network. "The core
value for Telstra is the service provision, not the network
operation," he says. And he wants to build up the services.
It’s a transformation of Telstra that
he’s forecasting — even more significant
than the transformation from legacy networks to all-IP networks
that is still worrying most telcos. Telstra wants to transform
beyond worrying about the network. GTB
GTB interview with David Thodey, Telstra CEO, here
GTB interview with Sol Trujillo, former Telstra CEO, here
National broadband network news here and here