Gigabit Britain: The future challenges faced by Britain in Telecom industry

Sam Evans, SMD at Delta Partners moderated a panel on Gigabit Britain: The future challenges faced by Britain in Telecom industry. This was a conversation with Ronan and Neil, the British telecom insiders leading the charge.

Ronan Kelly is the Chief Technology Officer of the ADTRAN and Neil McRae is the MD and chief network architecture from BT. Both have insider knowledge of the present and future situation of the British telecom industry, and they are here to give their opinions about Gigabit Britain – a United Kingdom’s incentive to supercharge the British telecom industry. It is a subsidy program to modernize the British Telecom network.

Furthermore, Ronan and Neil also share their opinions about 5G technology, people’s perspectives about the 5G technology, Wi-Fi, and how we can benefit from this technology in an intriguing conversation, which will definitely increase the reader’s knowledge about the British telecom industry.

‘This is a gold rush not just for fiber, but to build the community and the kind of towns and cities and villages of the future.’
Neil McRae, MD and Chief Network Architecture, BT


Can you tell us what Gigabit Britain is about?

Neil: Gigabit Britain is about taking ultra-fast connectivity literally to as many premises, customers, and locations as we possibly can. The government is funding some of the harder-to-reach areas from an economic point of view.

The government’s ambition is to have as much of the country as possible in the high ninety percent with gigabit-capable full fiber or gigabit-capable technologies. In reality, it’s about building the next generation of digital infrastructure to connect the people of the UK together.

So, Ronan, do you think a Government intervention is necessary?

Ronan: The UK government has already done a particularly good job of providing what’s probably the most important ingredients for investors and operators to build out the infrastructure needed to deliver on the gigabit vision and that is confidence.

I think that when investors have certainty and confidence with how things will play out in the next 10-15 years is when they pump the billions that are needed to build this infrastructure into the hands of operators to build these things out. When they have that confidence that they’re more than willing to put that money in, as evident by the new and very healthy community of over 80 alternates that have literally emerged from nowhere today.

Beyond the cost of capital being cheap, what has the Government specifically done to give that confidence to drive the investment into fixed infrastructure?

Neil: I think they’ve given us the ability to generate a return. BT and other companies I’ve worked for, what we are looking for is a certainty that if we spend our shareholders’ money, we will generate a return. OfCom (Office of Communications) has laid out some directions on that and what they’ve put down is enough for us to say we are going to put down a multi-billion pound spend over the next five or six years to really accelerate our rollout.

What I have seen from OfCom is a real willingness to understand what it takes to build fiber and the fact the build cost is such an important number in the whole economic chain, it’s very difficult to do this cheaply. It’s all about value for money and generating return – OfCom and other stakeholders have seen the value of doing this.

I would argue in the last year that if there was any evidence needed if we need this infrastructure- we definitely got it because of the impact of the pandemic.

Ronan: I think the government has very clearly signaled to the UK that this industry is strategically part of their policies. I think over the heavy-hitting pieces with regard to investment and removal of things like significant market power status on things like fiber infrastructure are all really important.

Even some of the smaller more localized things like the barrier-busting task forces that have been put in place to get rid of some of the red tape that has historically driven the cost through the roof has delayed rollouts that we’ve seen out there. It’s all about mindset from top-down from senior government officials to local councils to say this is a priority.

Where can the government really help and is helping?

Ronan: If we look at the funding that has come into the market, Private Equity and infrastructure-based investment funds substantially outweigh the funding the government has made available.

The best thing the government can do is not get in the way of the momentum that’s already there. From what I’ve seen they’re doing their best and trying to get out of their own way and that’s to be applauded.

Neil: Many local governments have woken up to the reality that is a gold rush for not just fiber, but to build communities of the future. We have seen local governments not just take barriers away but also ask what more can we do to make it easier for you to build. The easier you make it for us the quicker we’re coming to you.

Britain is a knowledge economy and what I’ve seen is a recognition of that.

Do you think people are aware of the benefits of a gigabit society?

Ronan: The key here is to not fall into the trap of comparing how we use connectivity today versus the infrastructure we’re putting in place for the future. Today we can pass multiple terabits per second of capacity over one strand of fiber so the infrastructure that’s being built is substantially future proof versus the traditional copper infrastructure that to be fair has served the society for close to 100 years.

The reality is, and Neil touched on this – connected ambulances are sending true x-rays, scans and test results before a patient makes it to the hospital. Five years ago that was an impossibility.

This capacity democratizes a lot of technologies that are traditionally to preserve high-end industry are now available to consumers.

What is most important to also recognize is that the bandwidth always precedes the applications, so as more gigabit connectivity becomes available in the market, we will see the emergence of new applications to take advantage of that. We should have confidence that when you build connectivity and you continue to improve on the capacity the innovators find ways to use it that brings utility to the masses across society.

The simplest example of this is if we look at Netflix. Netflix 10 years ago allowed you to order videos through an online portal which they would mail, and you would watch then return in the mail. It wasn’t because video streaming wasn’t available as a technology at that time, there were many IPTV systems deployed around the world. What was missing was the capacity out to the mass market wasn’t prevalent at that point in time. As soon as it started to become available, they invested in the infrastructure to allow streaming to occur and now we’ve got 250 million users around the world paying every month.


The challenge of Wi-Fi – how do we solve that so the gigabit experience gets right to the endpoint and is not disrupted by poor Wi-fi coverage around a home?

Ronan: My passionate belief is that consumers buy Wi-fi, they don’t buy broadband or fiber, they buy Wi-fi. Now that we’ve moved to this world where everything is connected through Wi-fi there’s an expectation around the reliability of that Wi-fi connection.

Service providers have quickly come to that realization. We have seen standards with Wi-fi 6 and Wi-fi 6e that are going to bring a lot more capacity to solve the problem, however that’s not going to bring more coverage. That’s where technologies like mesh technology are required and then we need coordination of that environment. The challenge you’ve got in that is the environment is dynamic, it’s always changing so you really have to focus on automation here so that cloud-based automation can continually fine-tune that environment and make sure it’s optimal to deliver on the consumers’ needs.

There is also a consumer education piece when somebody calls and says I can only get 100 meg on my 1 gig Wi-fi, and we realize they’re on a first-gen iPad. We can tell the customer that the network’s working properly, and the device they are using is a bit old so they may want to think about upgrading it.

There are lots of users that hang on to lots of legacy equipment.

Neil: I think Wi-Fi is crucially important, and if you look at it, BT was the first to launch what we could call unbreakable Wi-Fi. We have invested and researched and designed technologies to make Wi-Fi work better in our whole home.

1991 was when the first WaveLAN card I stuck on my laptop and I was amazed to be able to do that. People were stunned that I could wander around and have network – you know it just worked.

At BT we’ve got one of the largest AI paid portfolio which we’ve been running for five to six years now. This has been crucially important in automation and understanding what’s going on in the home.

This is the challenge I see in the market: if you’re investing into connecting to someone’s house and then only sticking a commodity box on that end,  you’re not going to hold on to that customer for very long. That’s where I think network operators are investing in: bringing more seamless technology to consumers.

We know how critical these fixed infrastructures are so how does the industry need to deal with the cases of sabotage and weather-based incidents?

Ronan: One of the approaches that we’ve seen to this is in some countries the rise in interest in dual connected or multi-home connected CPE solutions where they’ve got cellular backup connectivity as well as direct fiber connectivity.

One of the positives about the transition into fiber is that fiber networks are infinitely more robust than copper networks, particularly when it comes to weather-related incidents. With fiber, we also get into coverage distances of up to 60 kilometers, which facilitates the repatriation of the smart electronics needed to run the network back into secure locations where they are less exposed.

Neil: From the early days, security has been paramount in communications. I think there is a number of challenges around education since we saw earlier lots of people burning down 5G masks. That was a challenge for us since we were trying to connect to hospitals and now we have to try and fix this. So I think it starts with education and ensuring people realize that these networks are here for good. They are not here to spy on you, they’re here to help connect you and I think that message got through during this pandemic period.

The other thing is, humans. When I look at the major issues that we’ve had in telecommunications the worst outages have been caused by humans. We know humans make mistakes so when we build a network we have to think, a human is going to make a mistake. How do you shield your network and your customers from that? That’s where automation and taking the direct human touch out of the network. There has been a shift in network management and maintenance from being very reactive to flip to being very proactive.

Building on what we spoke on: the criticality of infrastructure, the need to educate, the need for device innovation to fix the Wi-fi issue, the fact that there is now investor confidence coming in that is spurring competition. We have touched on 5G briefly, so let’s jump forward five years – what are some things the UK has to get right to stay on the course that it’s on?

Ronan: Skilled human resources; consistently across the industry. Everybody is trying to recruit and there’s increasing amplitude to the voices crying out for more apprenticeship programs and to train people in the new skill sets that are needed to deliver these gigabit ready network infrastructures.

Neil: Ronan is 100% right. But, we also need to ensure that people realize they can have an absolutely awesome career in telecoms. The last 30 years have been phenomenal for me personally. The United Kingdom must bank the benefits that 5G and 5G automation can harness in smart cities, healthcare, and the industry.

The second thing would be security. The government must do more to ensure security work is applied across every single network operator as this will attract app developers, builders, and people who want to invest in the network.