Getting to the core of 21CN

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How is BT's 21st Century Network project impacting the alternative providers — and how are they working with BT in the roll-out of the all-IP network? The head of one leading operator gives his views

Phil Metcalf
Phil Metcalf: 21CN
is a monstrous task
in scale and complexity
BT is almost certainly the first incumbent operator to announce a tight time-scale to close down its conventional networks and replace them with an all-IP network. And it plans to do all, or most, of this by 2009.

We interviewed Paul Reynolds, the CEO of BT Wholesale — which is running the 21st Century Network programme — in the January/February issue. Now it's time to ask the leader of one of BT's most prominent competitors what it's actually like to work with the incumbent at such a time of change — and what his main issues are.

Phil Metcalf is managing director of Global Crossing UK, part of the international network which is 61.5% owned by Temasek, the Singapore government's investment arm. While in most of the world Global Crossing tends to deal at the wholesale level and with large customers — government and enterprise — in the UK, because of its history, it has much more of a local network.

That means Metcalf and his colleagues, including Robert Turnbull, vice president of access management, are involved day to day in issues concerning 21CN.

"It's a monstrous task in scale and complexity," says Metcalf. And it's made worse because there are so many different participants in the process. "BT has a lot of interested partners, customers and so on, and it wants to satisfy them all at the same time."

Committees and committees

This means that there is an increasing number of committees in which BT Wholesale meets other telecoms operators, and as the first roll-out of real 21CN services gets closer they are ever more active: "There are about 12 committees and I get two, three, four or five emails every day from all of them."

They cover issues concerning the conversion of the PSTN to all-IP and the migration of individual services.

"What they don't cover is commercial issues," says Turnbull. "Pricing, contract structures and so on."

This has an impact on companies such as Global Crossing, notes Metcalf. "They're things that are vital. We've got to make investments in the network and we don't want stranded assets."

Investment decisions

The danger is, he adds, that he has to take decisions to invest in equipment and systems to support customers now. But by 2009 everything will have to interwork with BT's 21CN, and there's a danger of picking incompatible standards.

"If I make a decision now the equipment could be redundant in a year," says Metcalf.

Global Crossing is also concerned about BT's focus. "I think it's generally seeing 21CN as a PSTN replacement platform," says Turnbull.

The parallel is with the replacement of analogue exchanges by digital switches nearly two decades ago. It was the last wholesale replacement of the telecommunications infrastructure — in BT and other incumbents worldwide.

But that was just at the beginning of the world of competitive telecommunications, and few services other than voice had to be accommodated: fax machines were only just starting to become common and acoustic couplers were used to send emails over the voice network at 300 bytes a second.

"BT is focussing on the edge of the network, where we don't play," says Turnbull. "The core is the whole development that is vital to us."

Metcalf explains: "We've already made key decisions on our core network covering MPLS. We're years ahead of BT on that." But the standards Global Crossing has chosen for its MPLS network might not be followed by BT's 21CN. "We don't want decisions that we made four or five years ago having to be revisited."

BT Wholesale is trying to accommodate all the competitive providers, but that might mean a lowest common denominator of a system, he worries. "You can see where it can go wrong," says Metcalf. "We're probably going to get tougher with BT."

There are plans for a committee of non-BT operators to give the competitive providers more say, but "that means you're just fighting committees with committees", he says.

But, despite his gripes, he is eager to say that he supports the 21CN project. "For us, what BT is doing is the right thing to do." He's concerned, though, that competitors' positions might be weakened in the process: there is a temptation for some companies just to retail varieties of the services provided on BT's network. "You can't end up with one IP provider in the UK. That would destroy competition."

Metcalf has shared a stage with Paul Reynolds, CEO of BT Wholesale, to support 21CN. "They're applying their best brains to it. Matt Bross [CTO] is a very smart guy and so is Paul."

The project "is at that stage when it is starting to roll", he says. "We need to adjust where we point this monster, so it's as good for the altnets as it is for BT." GTB