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August 18, 2015updated 26 Aug 2016 4:29pm

How the world’s oldest telecoms company is preparing for the future

Exclusive Q&A: BT's Tim Whitley explains how BT is preparing for the IoT and other developments.

By Alexander Sword

BT has existed in some form or another since the 19th century, seeing all sorts of transformations in telecoms technologies and the way they are delivered.

Now the world is going through another huge transformation. CBR spoke to Tim Whitley, Managing Director, Research and Innovation, BT to learn more about how the world’s oldest telecoms operator is preparing for the future.


CBR: What will be the technical requirements for the IoT in the core network?

Right now, data that can be classed as ‘IoT’ isn’t a large proportion of the traffic volume on our core network. Most individual IoT devices don’t have huge bandwidth demands when you compare them to video streams for example.

However, some predictions have the IoT growing to over 40 billion devices by 2020, and some of these devices will generate imagery and video. Clearly as a network operator we need to make sure that our networks are capable of coping with these volumes. That’s why in BT’s world-leading engineering HQ in Suffolk we’re really continuing to push the boundaries of optical fibre.

Experts in our photonics labs are constantly exploring cutting-edge techniques such as using optical ‘superchannels’ to squeeze much higher data rates over our existing core network fibres.

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Last year we achieved a ‘real-world’ speed record, getting 3Tb/s over an optical fibre, which gives us confidence that our core networks will be able to cope with increases in bandwidth demands well into the future.


CBR: What innovations can we expect from BT in FMC?

We’ve been clear that we believe the future of BT is based around the ability to deliver the content that consumers want, where and when they want it.

Our vision is to provide customers with a seamless service, regardless of whether they use a mobile or fixed device and whether it’s inside or outside of the home or office.

Our research and innovation is focused on achieving this vision, and clearly FMC is an important part of that.


CBR: How will the EE acquisition affect this?

We think the deal will be good for UK plc. It will create the new digital champion that the UK needs but without reducing competition. In fact, competition will be enhanced in the provision of fixed mobile services.

The new company will invest and innovate for the benefit of the UK. Other companies operating in the UK will also be able to benefit and compete through highly regulated, equal access to Openreach’s network, and wholesale access to the EE mobile network.

Consumers and businesses will benefit from new innovative and seamless services – based on ultrafast broadband, 4G and 5G – so the deal is good for them as well as for UK plc.


CBR: When will we see 1Gbps becoming more standard in the UK?

There are already 1Gbps services available in the UK, and in fact we offer a range of business services that deliver much faster speeds than that. BT also has the largest ‘fibre to the home’ footprint in the UK, but the question is really about what speeds people need in the UK.

We do a lot of work to understand broadband usage, customer demand and independent analysis of where the market is going, and from all that research (and our own expertise and experience) we feel our up to 80 mbps services are delivering more than enough speed for the demands people have in their homes today.

More than 99 percent of the UK has access to traditional broadband, and well over 80 percent and rising can access superfast speeds of 24mbps and above. That enables people to do everything they want to do with their connection, from using multiple devices to stream content simultaneously around the house, to playing online games or uploading lots of files to the cloud – anything goes really.

We think our investments in fibre broadband have been right for the UK and it has put us ahead of the big players in Europe on a whole range of independent measures. That’s not to say that demand for faster speeds won’t increase in future though. We know it will.

The need for speed has gone up steadily over the years and we have always looked to meet that demand by investing in cutting edge research and development. We think the next big step will be GFAST – which is a technology that we’re really excited about.


CBR: What can we expect from other forms of wireless such as ZigBee?

ZigBee and similar wireless standards are not designed for bulk data; they are typically used in low-powered battery operated devices where power conservation is more important than throughput. Neither ZigBee nor its competitor ZWave is currently dominating the market, so there is intense competition from new and existing technologies.

Solutions based around the upcoming IEEE 802.11ah standard can be expected in the future.

In the short term, existing technologies such as DECT, Bluetooth Smart, and so called ‘low power’ Wi-Fi a more power efficient variant of the already ubiquitous technology, are all making strong claims on the market, offering varying levels of signal propagation and interoperability depending on the solution.

There are also many other propriety systems carving out IoT niche markets such as security or wellbeing.

Many of these IoT wireless vendors are rallying around the IETF 6LowPAN specification. This enables them to move away from middleware and schema politics, allowing them to concentrate on optimising their radio power efficiency whilst presenting generic IP access.

Ultimately, a wireless system that combines good range with a battery life of years and a low latency could be the killer solution for IoT wireless.

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