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.

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.

Table 1: Headcount at major service providers

2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
América Móvil 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
Telefónica 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
Source: Companies, SEC filings. Notes: End-of-year figures were used unless unavailable, in which case year-average numbers were used; Level 3 was acquired by CenturyLink in 2017; T-Mobile and Sprint merged in April 2020.

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.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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