Interview: Oscar Ruiz of BT

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BT’s international wholesale division, Global Telecom Markets, is considering offering advanced services based on its Ribbit acquisition in Silicon Valley to other operators

BT considers Ribbit platform in wholesale services offering

Oscar Ruiz of BT GTM: I think we are ready to offer Ribbit
as a wholesale service to other operators

BT is considering offering serviced delivered by its Ribbit platform to other telecoms operators in a wholesale arrangement.

No final decision has been taken, but Oscar Ruiz, president of BT Global Telecom Markets — its international wholesale division — told Global Telecoms Business not only that BT is considering the move but that BT is “ready” to move into the market with the suite of products.

If BT takes its ideas to market, this would mark a significant change of strategy of the UK incumbent towards offering white-labelled services to other operators. But something of this nature must have been in BT’s plans since it bought California-based Ribbit in 2008 for $105 million.

Ribbit — which calls itself Silicon Valley’s first phone company — was set up by IT, internet and telecoms specialists to build an open platform for innovation in voice applications.

It has a consumer product, Ribbit Mobile, a voicemail-to-text-message service which is being tried out free by a number of people in the industry. But there are also packages for sales executives and for people in the legal, medical, financial and other sectors. There are interfaces to Salesforce and Oracle systems.

It is potentially, many have speculated, bigger than just an add-on service that BT could offer to its own consumer and business customers.

And Ruiz appears to confirm that BT is thinking the same way, about Ribbit and potentially other services.

“Ribbit is an advanced platform which allows us to treat voice as data,” says Ruiz. BT GTM — which is part of the enterprise-facing BT Global Services but works closely with BT Wholesale in offering connectivity and services to other carriers — “offers carriers a list of things”, he says. “They may buy one, two or more. We have a platform on IP in one location and operators can connect to it and deliver the service.”

Ribbit is one of these possible services. “This is something we are thinking about,” he says. “Are we ready to do it now? I think we are ready. Could we open it up for other players, a wholesale offering? I think we’d benefit the whole industry.”

Operators are looking for applications and services to offer to their end customers, “but we say to them: ‘Why do you want to develop this? I can offer it to you,’” says Ruiz.

What carriers might need

“Let’s think where the industry is going, and what carriers are going to ask us to have in two to three years,” he adds. Carriers “can see it’s already been done”, by BT with Ribbit. There is no need for overlapping investments, he adds. That is the point of a wholesale operator: “A wholesaler thinks what carriers might need and how we can help them move faster,” he says.

This role of BT GTM as a wholesale services provider has developed over the past couple of years, starting from GTM’s initial task which was based more round BT’s development of its all-IP 21st century network in the UK and internationally.

“The complete transformation that BT has done, in the core network and the access network, is one of the most aggressive in the world,” says Ruiz. BT recognised that other carriers worldwide might benefit from consultancy — and in the early days that is what GTM preferred to talk about, but more recently the unit, based in Munich, well away from BT’s home market, is giving more emphasis to wholesale products and services that it offers to carriers.

“GTM covers all the wholesale business outside the UK. It’s a global realisation. But we align very well with BT Wholesale in the UK. Some accounts are global and the products show some similarities. We work with carriers that have domestic and global operations.”

Wholesale services “have traditionally been network dependent but in the future this will be less so, as products move on to global IP services”, he explains. And the significant thing about products delivered in the IP layer is that they can be delivered “next door or on another continent”.

BT can offer services on its own network — which clearly has a stronger footprint in Europe than in the US, Africa or Asia — but it can also offer them across the world, he says. “We may use capacity from our partners if we don’t have our own.” And that means it can provide services anywhere. “In BT we are one of the leaders in innovation,” he adds.

The connection with BT’s other divisions in important, says Ruiz, “because in order to understand what is required in wholesale you need to understand what is required in retail markets”. That includes services delivered “to people, to small enterprises, to large corporations or to multinationals”.

Working with Tata

Within the division, traditional voice “is still a big part of the business”, and Ruiz immediately points to the significance of the deal that BT has with Tata (see interview with Srinath Narasimhan) to work together on wholesale voice services, a deal “that positions BT and Tata among the main players”, he says. “This helps us have more synergies and a global reach.”

But wholesale is moving beyond voice, he emphasises. “There are new services, such as field force automation. We have very strong experience of managing field forces. We can sell that to other carriers which may be less experienced.”

GTM, he adds, can provide professional services to other carriers, “sharing our knowledge and experience, especially to carriers in developing markets”.

Such professional services start with IP termination of voice “and IP-to-IP connections at the bottom of the layer” and move up to “services such as number management” that the company can offer to fixed and mobile players.

But the 21CN project, he says, gives the company experience in sectors such as “managing suppliers, how to manage capex and investment, and all the services on top”.

In the telecoms industry “every player is transforming to IP, and some may want to do it on their own, but when they consider value-added services maybe we can share something”, perhaps by offering them on a white-label arrangement.

BT has this advantage, he continues, because the UK became a competitive market before many other countries. As a result, “we’ve helped many operators worldwide”, says Ruiz. “We believe that by doing so we create value for the market. We continue innovating to be ahead in the marketplace, so we are able to survive in the market.”

The company has helped “both incumbents and second and third players” in markets. “BT has been successful in a competitive market in the UK. Our aim is to help them evolve, to support them from the wholesale point of view.”

The 21CN model

One question the company is asked by potential wholesale customers “is how to replicate the 21CN model and superfast broadband”, he says. “We can help them think about the portfolio of technologies, such as WiMax and fibre, so they can create a business and sustain it.”

The reference is WiMax is intriguing. BT is one of the few incumbents in the world without its own wireless business: it used to have what became O2, but split that off as an independent company more than a decade ago, and a few years later the Spanish incumbent, Telefónica, bought it up. So why the reference to WiMax?

Ruiz points out that in the early days BT has “significant investments in mobile” and worked with “most of the larger operators around the world”. But WiMax, which has developed since BT split from O2?

“We have done trials with new technologies and mobile technologies,” says Ruiz. “We know what can be done with WiMax and other technologies.” And BT is a member of the WiMax Forum. With that, slightly uncomfortably, Ruiz drops the subject, leaving in the air the interesting possibility that BT is nursing WiMax ideas.

He turns to the white-labelling idea. “We have a portfolio of legacy products and a portfolio that is evolving,” he says. “We offer to carriers a list of things and they may buy one, two or more. Operators can connect and deliver the service.”

And that’s when he starts to talk enthusiastically about Ribbit as part of the portfolio of possible services. “This is something we are thinking about.”

There are other products in the portfolio, such as SMS hubbing. Usually when people send text messages “they hope it arrives” and “there is no acknowledgement of receipt”, he notes. BT has the technology to make SMS more like email, he says: “We can do this already. This is very attractive.” Even internally in companies SMSs with added features could be used to manage field forces, he explains.

Operators “could offer different quality of service and can make money out of it”, he adds. “Many have roadmaps” that include such features, but they are already available. “BT is at the forefront of developments.” Carriers are thinking about priorities, but “we are ahead of the others and are trying to drive how things will work”, he says.

This is “a very radical and different approach to what wholesale means”, says Ruiz. “We are one of the largest wholesalers, and we are a serious wholesaler. It’s not just to fill the capacity of our networks.” The idea is to be ahead, and to share that expertise. “Our aim is to keep growing.” GTB