The big test for 21CN

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In this issue of Global Telecoms Business, we interview the two CEOs who are in charge of the reconstruction of BT as an incumbent unlike any other in the world. Here, Paul Reynolds, CEO of BT Wholesale, explains how 21CN will start to roll out within months. Interview by Alan Burkitt-Gray

Paul Reynolds

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 dome.

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 time behind."

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 17."

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 creation platform".

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 still."

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 you."

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 migration."

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.

Roll-out map

"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 time.

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 fuss about?

"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 Openreach /default.asp?Page=7&PubID=45&SID=625331&ISS=21526