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BT Embraces Small Cells for Mobile Push

Ray Le Maistre

BT today launched its first truly significant mobile service since it offloaded its cellular assets in 2001, but surprisingly the new assault on the wireless market doesn't make use of its recently acquired 4G spectrum -- at least, not yet.

The service is BT One Phone, a new voice-centric, fixed-mobile service targeted at the UK's small and midsized businesses (SMBs) that brings together a host of new and existing network capabilities, including enterprise small cells, and applications. (See BT Launches One Phone for SMBs and Know Your Small Cell: Home, Enterprise, or Public Access?.)

But even though the UK operator won a 4G license in 2013, gaining spectrum in the 2.6GHz band, that isn't being used for the launch of this service, but instead will come into play from later this year. (More on this later, and for more background on what to expect, see BT's Wireless Re-Entry Starts With Small Cells.)

So what is BT One Phone?
The new fixed-mobile service is being pitched to enterprises of all sizes by BT Business, a division of the UK operator that was formed in September 2013. The idea is to deliver integrated fixed and mobile services to a single mobile SIM that can be used in any mobile device, with services running over a small cell-enabled, dedicated corporate network when the enterprise customer's users are in-building (so delivering fixed-line quality voice services when people are at their workplace), and running over the national mobile network of MVNO partner EE when users are out of range of their dedicated company network.

Customers also get bundled access to BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA)'s nationwide network of WiFi access points, which currently number 5 million around the UK.

The enterprise customer can manage the services -- from SIM activation to individual user policies to virtual PBX functionality -- through a web-based portal: All the applications and settings are cloud-based, so they can be accessed by administrators and users from their mobile devices at any time, whether at the workplace or on the road.

The assets BT has combined to create the service are:

  • BT's access network (fiber and copper), to connect customer locations to BT's core network and data centers/cloud services;
  • new core network capabilities, built using technology from Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. ;
  • enterprise small cells (also known as picocells) from Huawei, though other unidentified enterprise small cell suppliers are in line to be used;
  • low-power (guard band) 1800MHz spectrum that works over short distances and is therefore suitable for in-building coverage, the license for which BT has held since 2006 (but not done anything with in the past eight years…);
  • cloud-based customer self-service management tools;
  • fixed-mobile applications developed by Swedish specialist OnePhone Holding AB;
  • BT's UK national network of 5 million WiFi access points;
  • its new MVNO relationship with EE .

    The new service comes in two flavors. BT One Phone Office is the "flagship" service that is being targeted at enterprises with between 20 and 250 employees, and which involves the deployment of the small cells for optimum in-building voice service delivery. BT says it can take this service to larger companies also but that plans are being made to optimize the small cell package for larger businesses (as well as smaller ones).

    BT One Phone Professional is for companies that are either too small to have a dedicated mobile network at their offices or which already have a PBX system they want to continue to use to maximize return on investment. This version, though, means the customer does not get enhanced in-building voice coverage, one of the main benefits of this new BT proposal (and a much sought-after and prized service attribute amongst businesses).

    Challenges for BT
    BT faces a number of challenges in getting this new offer to market, even though BT Business has a ready-made audience of more than 900,000 customers.

    First, it's unclear what this will cost an enterprise. BT has not revealed any pricing -- it says only that it is "comparable" to other fixed-mobile integration services -- and for those companies taking the Office flavor, which seems like the one that would be attractive (with enhanced in-building voice services), the process involves not only the provision of a BT line to each site but also the construction of a new in-building cables to hook up to the small cells, which cannot be plugged into existing enterprise LANs.

    In addition, while there is an unspecified connection fee for customers, that fee will be higher than normal if the network planning and integration is complex. BT says it expects an Office deployment to take up to 12 weeks, and the minimum contract term is three years.

    Then there's the marketing. "BT has historically done a poor job of marketing new services," notes CCS Insight analyst Paolo Pescatore, who says his first thought when he was briefed about the new service was "Where's the 4G? I don't think BT are ready to launch their own 4G services yet."

    But that doesn't mean he is negative about BT's prospects, as while the offer might seem a bit voice-centric in a data-centric world, the focus on enhanced in-building mobile voice quality supported by WiFi access (though NOT including voice over WiFi) is one that is likely to attract UK enterprises, he believes.

    "This is a long-term play and BT is doing a good job in repackaging and making the most of its assets as well as adding cloud-based tools. Voice is the clear driver here," adds Pescatore.

    Will that be enough though? Vodafone has been offering its One Net service for some time with a raft of unified communications capabilities that seem more attuned to modern business needs.

    So what about BT's 4G spectrum?
    BT One Phone is the UK incumbent's first offer in a series of mobile launches, noted Graham Sutherland, CEO of BT Business at the launch held at the BT Tower in London Thursday morning.

    In a few weeks, BT will announce details of its business customer-focused MVNO service with EE, while its consumer service launch comes later this year.

    And it's in that consumer pitch, as well as in future enhancements to the BT One Phone service, where BT is expected to start using its 2.6GHz 4G spectrum, most likely, believes Pescatore, with a femtocell-based 4G service that will aim to deliver enhanced voice connectivity in people's homes in the same way that the 1800MHz low-power spectrum is being used in enterprises.

    — Ray Le Maistre, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

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    User Rank: Light Beer
    7/22/2014 | 12:01:42 PM
    Re: Hard to decide if this is brave or not fully cooked...
    Hi Ray, I agree that something seems to be missing... Is it device integration, macro-pico handoff, 4G evolution...?  All of the above, and then some?  Hard to say.
    User Rank: Blogger
    7/18/2014 | 6:13:38 AM
    Re: Isn't this just
    More a distant relative, I would say, than Bluephone (aka Fusion). This is licensed spectrum, focused on enterprises (rather than consumers), and has an integrated hosted/cloud management tool. So, a grown up cousin, maybe.... 
    User Rank: Light Beer
    7/17/2014 | 3:10:02 PM
    Isn't this just
    a respin of Bluephone?
    User Rank: Blogger
    7/17/2014 | 2:36:02 PM
    Hard to decide if this is brave or not fully cooked...
    There's something about this pitch that leaves a sense that something's missing.... and the choice of picocells that don't plug into an enterprise LAN I think is a mistake, but that's just me.
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