Intelligent networks: telecoms’ future glistens brightly

13 Oct 2011

Clive Selley, CEO of BT Innovate & Design; CIO, BT

At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona two years ago, various CEOs of telecoms companies told the then-CEO of Google Eric Schmidt there was an anxiety in the telecoms industry. They felt they were being sidelined into being ‘dumb pipe’ providers in the face of intelligent online services from players like Apple, Google, Facebook, Skype and others.

At the heart of this is net neutrality and who will pay for the cost of delivering the digital networks if operators are faced with ever-diminishing returns and internet giants reap all the rewards. But there appears to be a fight-back and network operators want to regain control of their future.

The CEO of BT Innovate & Design and the global telecoms giant’s CIO Clive Selley says the key is increasingly intelligent digital networks.

Fibre network for Northern Ireland

BT is the largest telecoms provider in the UK, with more than 18m customers. The company is about to complete its Northern Ireland fibre rollout, which will result in more than 90pc of the population having access to the fastest broadband speeds in Europe.

“Where we see it going is we’re going to deliver increasingly TV and video-based services over our networks to consumers. Forget about ‘dumb pipes’. In the past year we’ve created caching centres at the edge of our networks, so instead of storing all video-on-demand content in a single place, we built an infrastructure that allows us to deliver content to 20 edge points in the UK in order to make sure the path of a video from the storage server to the customer is minimised and the experience is maximised.

“We’re moving into linear TV services where broadcasts are delivered in real-time over broadband. To do that we are implementing a quality of service access network that intelligently can tell the difference between different kinds of content.”

Selley says that BT has long positioned itself as a corporate and government ICT provider, specialising in intensive telecoms and cloud infrastructure.

“The business world is enjoying cutting-edge technologies like unified communications and security, in addition to traditional network services, and we’ve built up expertise in verticals like financial services, healthcare and pharmaceuticals.

“Eventually a lot of the capabilities will filter into the home. Soon, families sitting in their living rooms will enjoy the kind of TelePresence high-definition videoconferencing that my boss in London, Ian Livingston, would enjoy when he’s talking to Cisco CEO John Chambers in Silicon Valley.

BT’s R&D investment

In 2010/11, BT invested about stg£684m in R&D. It filed patent applications for 63 inventions in 2010 and maintains a total worldwide portfolio of around 6,400 patents and applications.

BT is doing exciting work with the Tyndall Institute in Cork in photonics, which will influence the performance of fibre networks.

Selley argues that no nation can ignore the imperative to deploy state-of-the-art fibre networks.

“In the UK, we are deploying our services to two-thirds of homes and businesses in the UK. The issue is the final third, where the business case for capital investment isn’t as strong.

“That’s where it’s important to work with government and the EU and look at ways of partnering to deliver this infrastructure to the final third. That process has already worked in Northern Ireland with the result that it will be the most extensively fibred region in the EU.

“Northern Ireland is the poster child for getting it right. People there already appreciate the difference fibre broadband is making to their home and working lives. I don’t see why it can’t work in other regions.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years