In the run up to Connected Britain 2018, we spoke with Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s Consumer Group, to find out how the UK’s former incumbent telco is gearing up to lead on next generation networks across the UK
It’s an exciting time for Britain’s telecoms sector at the moment, with the country pushing ahead to rollout 5G by 2019 and to hit 15 million fibre to the home (FTTH) connections by 2025. As Britain’s biggest telco, BT will have a huge role to play in shaping and delivering the UK’s digital future.
In addition to its central role as the enabler of Britain’s digital transformation, BT is launching a raft of schemes and initiatives that will re-establish the company as a centre for excellence and innovation in the UK.
A springboard for the UK’s growing digital economy
Next Generation Networks (NGN), namely 5G on the mobile side and fibre to the home on the fixed side, will be the bedrock upon which Britain’s digital economy is built. Allera believes that the role out of NGNs across the UK will also have a profound effect on the day to day lives of everyday Brits.
"It’s fundamental. We see it every day from our customers, they are using more and more data, in more and more places to do more and more things. As a result of this, they are becoming more and more demanding of us and of networks in general. Whether it’s on the fixed or the mobile side, or even both, they need faster speeds, more reliability and more coverage. I think for the economy in the UK, for businesses and for consumers, [gigabit connectivity] is an absolute must. I can’t think of anything more important," he said.
The UK government has set some ambitious targets for the rollout of FTTH services across the country, saying that it needs 15 million full fibre connections across the country by 2025 to facilitate the evolution of its digital economy. Creating investment strategies to incentivise fibre network builds and FTTH connections will be key to realising those targets.
"We often talk about whether you would be better off spending $25 billion on HS2 [Britain’s high speed rail expansion project] to get people a little faster from London to Birmingham, or would you take some of that money and invest it in better, faster, internet coverage for customers? I know where I would put my money," said Allera.
Allera is not underestimating the size of the task ahead. Britain’s network operators and infrastructure owners will need to invest quickly and smartly if they are to meet the government’s target of 15 million FTTH connections by 2025.
"While the industry does get a lot of criticism at times, these are huge infrastructure projects that the industry is getting on with. We’ve launched 3G and 4G and we will be doing the same with 5G – investing billions and billions of pounds to take things forward. We are not alone; our competitors want the same thing. We want easier access, better regulation that helps us do the things that we need to do, in order to invest in Britain’s infrastructure. It’s a pretty ambitious sector that wants to do more and more," he said.
Over the course of the last 6 months, the industry seems to have unified behind the idea that fibre is the future of connectivity. Openreach’s Fibre First policy is the embodiment of that, but Allera believes that the UK’s copper based architecture will necessarily play a role in the nation’s connectivity for years to come.
"There is a lot of attention on fibre and rightly so, it’s very exciting. A lot of people are talking about rolling out fibre in the UK but through Openreach we are rolling out hundreds of thousands of fibre to the premise (FTTP) connections over the next couple of years. That’s a huge rollout and a fast ramp up that they are doing. We will want to get as many of our customers on that network as possible.
"I think we use many different technologies on the mobile and on the fixed side of things. For some areas, for some time, the enhancement and capabilities that we have put through the copper networks will still be important. I think we have done a lot of good work to increase the speeds and capability and reliability that that offers. G-Fast technology has extended the life of copper by around 10-15 years. G-Fast gets a lot of plaudits from around the world," he added.
"The perception of copper is that it is slow and outdated but G-Fast is a good technology that gives faster speeds. Make no mistake though – we are clear that the future for Britain is a fibre future on the fixed side. BT Group will want to do 10 million homes [FTTH connections] as quickly as we can, provided the conditions are right. I’m confident that we will find a way to make that happen," he said.
Better Connected – The importance of smart, converged networks
BT has recently announced that it intends to launch its hybrid Smart Network by 2022, which will bring seamless, ultrafast connectivity across BT’s fixed, mobile and WIFI network architecture. BT’s strategy going forward will be underpinned by four strategic pillars, centred around the idea of convergence, as Allera explains.
"This is a really important vision that we have set for the Consumer Division and we are very excited about it. Essentially there are four key pillars of this plan.
"The first is building the converged smart network, which involves bringing our broadband and mobile and WIFI networks together to create one smart network. We really do believe that convergence is going to be a big part of the future, for us certainly, but also for the country as a whole. It will allow us to bring faster and more reliable connectivity to our customers, which is really important
Our next pillar is our three brilliant brands. We have three brands, EE, PlusNet and BT. This allows us to offer more choice to customers, it allows us to do different things with those different brands and to deliver innovation in a number of different ways.
"Thirdly, we have personal and local service, which is all about us being present in every community across the UK, employing more people than anyone else in the UK and bringing all of our call centres back to the UK, so while we are a very large company, we want to be the most personal company that our customers deal with in this sector. We are present everywhere and that’s a real strength that we have. We are on every High Street.
"The final pillar is partnerships. We have a very large customer base and we can offer huge distribution opportunities to partners large and small. Some great examples of that were announced last week – we are the first operator to bring Nest to the UK, we’ve signed a deal with Hive as well, so these are bringing new Smart Home opportunities to our customers. I think we are the first operator in Europe to bring amazon to our TV platform. We are constantly opening up our platform and our marketing capability and our distribution and our expertise to reach our customers. That’s good for our partners, it’s good for our customers and ultimately its good for us to create this scale of partnerships," he added.
Leading innovation in the UK
BT’s Consumer Group has some big plans to implement in the coming years, which it hopes will help to re-establish BT in the minds of consumers as a company that is synonymous with innovation and technological advancement.
BT wants to bring 5G mobile networks to the UK in 2019, meaning that Brits will get 5G services a good 6-12 months ahead of their European neighbours. While that might be a nice bonus, Allera says that BT Group is not concerned with what is happening on the continent but that being first to market within the UK is.
"Leading in this country is important to us. We have a reputation and a brand that is built on innovation and being first and I think it is important that we are seen to be leading on this new technology. We believe in it and we are excited about it," he said.
Some European operators have said that any 5G releases made prior to 2020 will represent a watered-down version of the technology – essentially a "5G Lite". This is something that Allera strongly refutes.
"To be honest, I don’t know what they mean by that. It’s either 5G or it’s not 5G – there is no such thing as "5G Lite".
"I know what we mean by 5G – we mean getting the equipment out there, getting the spectrum out there and getting the devices out there. With the experience we have of successfully launching 4G, we know that we are not going to be able to rollout 5G across the whole country on day one but it’s important to get it out there, to get the customers using it and to get our technical teams working with the technology and evolving it, making it faster and making it better.
"There is 12-18 months to go and there are still a lot of unknowns, particularly the devices. However, some of the big unknowns are no longer unknown. In terms of spectrum, you can now tick that box and say that we know what is happening there. The equipment vendors are obviously working very hard with everyone.
"So, it will be 5G or not 5G. There is no such thing as "5G Lite"," he concluded.