21st century boy

UK telco BT is in the middle of one of the biggest global network overhauls in history, known as the 21st Century Network (21CN) project. IT Weekly speaks to the man in charge of 21CN about the impact this undertaking is having on BT and on the wider telecommunications industry.

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By  Administrator Published  February 22, 2007

"This is just one of the coolest jobs on the planet, inarguably," Matt Bross states confidently. While such descriptions are usually more likely to be applied to the lead singer of a rock band or - in the tech arena - to the head of a trendy internet start-up, than the chief technology officer of UK telco BT Group (formerly British Telecom), it is one he stands by.

"If you like innovation and technology then BT provides this global sandbox to do just that," he explains.

The global sandbox Bross is referring to includes the 21st Century Network (21CN) project; BT's switch from its traditional phone network to broadband internet protocol (IP) systems, a five year project that is costing a staggering US$19 billion. By the time it is completed in 2010, BT will have decommissioned around 15 older networks and replaced them with a core infrastructure based on IP and ethernet technology - giving itself what is widely considered to be the most advanced next generation network (NGN) in the process.

While the project is huge, BT believes the rewards could be even bigger; as well as estimated cost savings of US$1 billion annually once it is completed, it will allow it to increase its speed to market and offer its customers worldwide a greater range of services.

The scale of 21CN is so great that being selected to be one of the suppliers for it can literally transform a firm's fortunes; Marconi's surprise omission in 2005 from the list of eight suppliers selected for the rollout sent its shares tumbling, ultimately leading to its takeover by Ericsson later that year.

As the chief technologist for the project, Bross could therefore be said to have not just one of the coolest tech jobs on the planet, but also one of the most powerful: the project, he admits, has "an enormous degree" of influence in the development of technology.

"You will find venture funds determining whether or not they will make investments in companies based upon whether their technologies fit into the 21 network or the NGN genre of technologies," he points out, adding that for the sector's larger suppliers "if you were to plot out the product portfolio pre-21CN, during the development of 21CN and now during the deployment they have altered their portfolio significantly to accommodate the next generation network infrastructure.

"It has had a huge indelible mark," he says.

The 21CN project has also had a huge impact on BT internally; after all, ‘cool' was hardly a word associated with the bloated monopoly operator that BT had become by the 1990s. So what has changed?

"Everything," says Bross (who joined BT as CTO in 2002), pointing out that BT's loss of that monopoly status left it in a position of needing to "innovate or die".

"That innovation call has changed everything throughout the company, there's malleability in the people of BT to try new things that has never been there," he says. "The company has taken on the mantle of driving next-generation network services and customer experience in a way that no other operator has done," he continues, pointing out that this is delivering tangible benefits: BT's global services business has secured contracts worth in excess of US$39 billion in the past three years.

"That is the vote of the marketplace saying that where we're innovating, where we're placing our investment, is the right place," Bross states.

That level of innovation extends to a radically different way of doing business with suppliers. Instead of keeping details of 21CN tightly to itself and only allowing suppliers to see the small part they are contracted to work on, BT has published its end-to-end architecture, allowing everybody to work within the same framework.

While that may mean giving away more information than some within BT Group would like to share, Bross says the organisation stands to benefit from such an approach.

"Here's the simple truth of the matter," he says. "We want global economies of scale to come into the manufacturing of the networking and systems technologies that we'll build 21CN out of, and we believe that as much innovation will come through how you put those together as through what you are putting together."

"If you buy all your friends ‘The Seven habits of highly successful people' and have them read it, it doesn't necessarily mean they are all going to become successful because it is the execution that matters," Bross explains.

"So our openness is intended clearly to drive global economies in the investment in networking systems technology that we'll need to build 21CN. We'll meet people in the marketplace with a differentiated customer experience, a services velocity the speed with which we can get new services into the marketplace, that will ensure our relevance to our customers."

The status of 21CN as a world-leading project is something that BT also hopes to capitalise on. Last year it announced in Dubai the launch of a new business unit, the 21C Global Venture, dedicated to selling BT's own experience in setting up 21CN to help other service providers set up their own NGNs. Turk Telekom will be the first customer to benefit from these services, thanks to a support agreement between its majority stakeholder Oger Telecom and BT.

"BT annually spends US$1.4 billion and US$1.5 billion on R&D [research and development]," says Bross. "That effort in terms of the network systems portfolio, customer experience, doesn't need to be replicated by every operator on the planet."

Bross says there has been a "groundswell of interest" in the 21C venture, with the telco working on multiple commercial arrangements globally.

The Middle East presents "a treasure trove of opportunity", he claims, with local telcos needing to make that same switch from incumbent operators to players in a global market that BT itself had to make.

"I think those [BT Group's] experiences will be important to operators here as well as around the world," he says. "It is early days but there is quite a bit of interest."

Bross says the 21CN is progressing "extremely well" with over a million customers switched over to the network in the UK and the 21CN core architecture deployed globally for BT's overseas customers.

Asked what has been the biggest challenge in getting it to that stage and Bross replies that "it is really the hearts and minds - people make things work, not boxes."

"I've personally been in front of 15,000 BT employees around the world, sharing with them the future with 21CN and the need to play a meaningful role in the daily lives of our customers and the success of businesses we work with. And that gets people excited," Bross claims.

"So, 21CN, the biggest challenge is the human challenge, it's the hearts and minds and bringing everybody along with what is humanly possible," he concludes.

“I’ve personally been in front of 15,000 BT employees around the world, sharing with them the future with 21CN and the need to play a meaningful role in the daily lives of our customers and the success of businesses we work with.”

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