BT’s view of networks in the 21st century

Last year, I wrote about the emergence of MPLS as an alternative network technology to traditional leased lines. It seems that everyone I work with is in the process of, or thinking about, dumping their kilostream/megastream/frame relay links and moving to something more cost-efficient.

Thus have a full-page advert in this week’s IT Week for their National Ethernet (a UK-based network with points of presence from the Shetland Islands to the south coast of England, but strangely none in Wales, east or south-west England). COLT, have their EuroLAN (only three UK POPs, but coverage in many major European cities) and BT are touting their global presence, whilst investing heavily in their 21st Century Network (dubbed 21CN).

Last week I was present at a presentation given by BT about what they call the “digital networked economy” (and their 21CN). Although they wouldn’t share their slide deck with me, I’m not aware of any non-disclosure agreement and much of the following information is available from a Google search anyway!

BT explained that the “inter-human web” has arrived. After the Internet had existed for many years as an e-mail and file transfer mechanism, mainly used by government and educational establishments, Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web, making the Internet user-friendly. Now we have a collaborative infrastructure built on e-mail, file transfer and the human aspects that the web provides and furthermore, according to BT, “a hurricane is ripping our industry apart”:

  • Traditional voice services face increased market pressure – 4 major US telcos lost 2% of their retail market base in one quarter.
  • Next-generation networks (NGNs) offer greater bandwidth and have taken the first steps towards replacing terrestrial television – viewers of last summer’s Live 8 concerts on AOL outnumbered MTV viewers 2:1 and BSkyB has linked up with EasyNet to offer broadband and telephony services combined with satellite television.
  • Revenue per megabit for broadband connectivity has collapsed – meanwhile UK connections are now pushing past the 10mbps mark, the US has 25mbps, and the far east is looking at 50-100mbps.
  • Network/service separation is expanding the base for traditional telcos’ competitors – using IT, homeworkers can be called wherever they are, and no-one need know that they are not in the office.

BT claims that it’s 21CN is about giving its customers control to enable communications; offering new services (faster than previously); and reducing costs to grow cash. They are betting the company on 21CN (to put this into context, BT is investing more into 21CN than the UK Government is investing in our road infrastructure).

Having said that, they are coming from a pretty poor starting point. The current infrastructure is a mess, with a mixture of networking technologies. 21CN is intended to offer Ethernet right back to the Exchange, with copper (DSL), wireless, and fibre links through to aggregators at 5500 sites, and onwards to BT’s core IP/MPLS/wavelength division multiplexing (WDM) network.

Ethernet has not traditionally been a successful wide area networking technology, so BT is investing in the use of carrier grade Ethernet, looking at fast restoration, auto discovery, scalability, class-based queuing, protection switching, fault and performance monitoring.

BT’s vision sees 21CN to be at the heart of the UK economy, innovating to provide “more than dumb fat pipes” connecting data centres, branches, headquarters campus buildings, home and mobile workers to offer enterprise virtualisation – a global virtual network with virtual applications and ubiquitous access to any application from any broadband location. They cite example technologies (many of which are here today) including:

  • VOIP (BT Communicator).
  • Fixed-mobile convergence (BT Fusion).
  • Broadband home (network-enabled wireless hubs).
  • Multimedia infotainment (BT Livetime mobile TV)
  • Application assured interface (single, robust and flexible platform which is able to prioritise at the application layer, e.g. to offer priority to applications which require low latency).

In the words of BT’s Tim Hubbard “21CN is big, bold, and it’s going to change the world forever”. I’m not sure if 21CN will change the world for ever, but NGNs in general will and BT is well placed to capitalise on this, as it builds a seamless global MPLS network, rolling out a new POP every week.

2 thoughts on “BT’s view of networks in the 21st century


  1. Good article. What was most intrigueing to me was how far the UK is lagging behind when compared to the USA and the Far East. A business would have to pay potentially thousands of pounds for 100mbps connectivity in the UK (depending on location). While consumers in the Far East can enjoy the same level of connectivity for less than a 10th of the price.

    Someone dropped the ball somwhere!


  2. @Mat, what’s annoying is that I wrote this three and a half years ago and have seen little evidence of progress since then part from Government whitepapers about digital Britain. I see that you work for an NGN (hence your reason for leaving a comment here) but I guess it’s the cost of such a major overhaul, combined with increasing pressure on BT to open up the market (whereas other in other regions there may still be a national telco) that are leading to the apparent dragging of heels…

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