Bring me wine and let robots run the BT network

Regarding people as a problem, BT's chief network architect is determined to automate as much as he possibly can over the next decade.

Iain Morris, International Editor

June 10, 2021

9 Min Read
Bring me wine and let robots run the BT network

People, eh? Let them anywhere near technology and they'll inevitably screw it up. It seems the Fastly outage that temporarily wiped out part of the Internet this week was caused not by something big, like a Chinese cyberattack or fast-spreading virus, but by something very small and human. A single customer apparently changed some computer settings, accidentally stumbled on a software bug and nearly brought down civilization.

The sensible response to this incident would be to reconsider mankind's overreliance on technologies that hardly anyone understands. But the sensible response to global warming would be the sort of commitment to renewables that matches recent spending on vaccine development. As COVID-19 has shown, this won't happen until world leaders are bobbing like corks around their submerged coastal properties.

The actual response to Fastly will probably involve attempts to make technologies less susceptible to human error. As much as possible, the people who design and run networks want other people kept out of the picture, unless they are just gawking at websites and providing another set of eyeballs for advertisers.

Figure 1: Pinball wizard and BT's chief network architect Neil McRae says networks perform better when humans aren't involved. (Yes, those are pinball machines in the background, and Internet-connected ones, too.) Pinball wizard and BT's chief network architect Neil McRae says networks perform better when humans aren't involved. (Yes, those are pinball machines in the background, and Internet-connected ones, too.)

"The demand the network has means we as humans just don't have the physical ability," said Neil McRae, the chief network architect of the UK's BT, during this week's Optical Fiber Communication Conference (online, of course). McRae had nothing to do with the Fastly outage, but one of his priorities at the UK telecom incumbent is to automate everything he can in the next ten years. "Hopefully, by the time we retire we've got robots running everything and we are just drinking wine and eating cheese," said McCrae. "That is where I want to get to."

Now, McRae wasn't being deadly serious when he said this – there was a broad smile on the Scotsman's face – but nor was he being totally frivolous. "Humans just are the problem," he said. "When we look at the pandemic, while we have served a lot of people over this, we have also had to update and build the network. But we have done it differently than before and had less human touch, and what we have seen is the network performs better when humans are not involved. That is just the reality. I think in the next five years we will probably see a lot of the provisioning and planning of networks go fully automated, and I think 5G is probably a catalyst for that."

BT already has some futuristic examples of the services this complex, autonomous network will be able to support. One already in trials is a 5G-connected ambulance that could transmit a patient's x-rays to the hospital before arrival, giving medical staff a potentially life-saving head start.

When humans call robots

But if these network systems are too complicated for people to operate, it seems likely that diagnosing and fixing problems will also be too much for even the best-trained bipeds. How, logically, could it be otherwise? In today's highly automated networks, man or woman is the last line of defense when networks go down. Even if they are at home, drinking wine and eating cheese, they can be dispatched on a rescue mission as a final resort. In the future, the humans may be calling the robots, while the robots call the shots.

If that does not scare you, then you are probably a replicant. But even before networks reach this point, telecom-sector staff must be wondering about their employment prospects as robots increasingly run the show. McRae's idea is to send idle BT engineers out like missionaries of automation, bringing the zero-touch gospel into other labor-intensive businesses. Once that job is finished, their careers might be over.

Want to know more about 5G? Check out our dedicated 5G content channel here on Light Reading.

It is still too soon to say the latest wave of automation will be more far-reaching than earlier upheavals. Previous rounds have clearly driven more people into white-collar roles and new jobs may spring up to replace the ones now disappearing. But as it becomes possible to automate white-collar and "thinking" jobs, it is harder to imagine what roles would be left to people. There is even a possibility that redundant office workers end up in blue-collar jobs. Amazon's workforce has grown from 238,000 in 2015 to about 1,298,000 now. Thousands work in its warehouses.

What's more, data gathered and analyzed by Light Reading suggests that jobs lost to automation in telecom are not being replaced at the same rate. Across the top 20 service providers with headquarters in the Americas and Western Europe, about 230,000 jobs have disappeared in the last five years, roughly 12% of the total. While asset sales and basic "downsizing" appear largely responsible, automation is known to have claimed thousands of roles.

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

2020

America Movil

195,475

194,193

191,851

189,448

191,523

186,851

AT&T

281,450

268,540

280,000

268,220

247,800

230,760

BCE

49,968

48,090

51,679

52,790

52,100

50,704

BT

102,500

106,416

105,787

106,742

105,344

99,741

CenturyLink

43,000

40,000

51,000

45,000

42,500

39,000

Deutsche Telekom

225,243

218,341

217,349

215,675

210,533

226,291

-T-Mobile US

50,000

50,000

51,000

52,000

53,000

75,000

KPN

14,078

13,530

13,275

12,431

11,248

10,102

Level 3

12,500

12,600

0

0

0

0

Millicom

15,956

17,985

19,127

21,403

22,375

21,419

Orange

156,191

155,202

151,556

150,711

146,768

142,150

Proximus

14,090

13,633

13,391

13,385

12,931

11,423

Rogers Communications

26,200

25,200

24,500

26,100

25,300

23,500

Sprint

30,000

28,000

30,000

28,500

27,000

0

Swisscom

21,637

21,127

20,506

19,845

19,317

19,062

Telecom Italia

65,867

61,229

59,429

57,901

55,198

52,347

Telefonica

137,506

127,323

122,718

121,853

117,347

113,182

Telenor

38,000

37,000

30,800

20,832

20,044

18,000

Telia

26,895

26,017

25,021

20,836

21,232

20,741

Telus

47,700

51,300

53,600

58,000

65,600

78,100

VEON

52,321

41,994

39,938

46,132

46,492

43,639

Verizon

177,700

160,900

155,400

144,500

135,000

132,200

Vodafone

111,684

111,556

106,135

98,996

95,219

96,506

As one of the European operators on the list, BT shrank its own workforce by 5,600 jobs last year, which means that around one in 20 roles disappeared. While it has been dispensing with middle managers and back-office staff, CEO Philip Jansen has also stressed the need for an overhaul of IT and network systems. More processes need to be "zero touch," he previously told analysts.

The company still looks outrageously bloated next to its rivals. With its workforce of nearly 100,000, BT made less than £214,000 ($302,000) in revenues per employee last year. The equivalent figure at the newly merged Virgin Media O2, with its 18,000 employees, is more than £611,000 ($863,000). At BT, that implies there are plenty of heads that can still roll.

Related posts:

— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

Read more about:

Europe

About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

Subscribe and receive the latest news from the industry.
Join 62,000+ members. Yes it's completely free.

You May Also Like