BT's 21CN Meets Its Skeptics

Industry movers and shakers question BT's aggressive 21CN timetable, but the UK carrier insists it's on track

March 21, 2005

5 Min Read
BT's 21CN Meets Its Skeptics

As BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) gears up to announce the lead vendors for its next-generation, all-IP network, known as the 21st Century Network (21CN), doubts are being raised about whether the U.K. incumbent can meet its aggressive deadline to switch off its switched voice network within five years (see BT Moves Ahead With Mega Project).

BT has an ambitious timetable for its 21CN project, and it has already chosen its lead software system providers and begun live service and system tests (see BT Picks Radcom for VOIP Test, BT Awards Monster OSS Deal, Vendors Detail Gear in BT VOIP Trials, and ECI's FTTP Goes Live in BT Trial). The aim is to turn off its circuit-switched voice network in 2010, a deadline that Paul Reynolds, the CEO of BT Wholesale (which is managing the 21CN process) says must be met if the business case of shifting to an all-IP network is to stand up.

But first BT needs to name its lead equipment contractors for the £10 billion (US$19 billion) IP network. It has said it will do this by the end of March, the close of its financial year, and the vendor community is on tenterhooks awaiting the carrier's decisions (see BT Has 21CN Shortlists).

BT has said that other carriers need to follow its lead if they're to survive, and that they shouldn't stick their heads in the sand (see BT Sinks Its Teeth Into IP). And indeed, fellow European national operator KPN Telecom NV (NYSE: KPN) has laid out its migration plans in the Netherlands, though it hasn't specified a date for decommissioning its circuit-switched voice network (see KPN Lays Out IP Migration Plan).

But other major European operators, such as Germany's Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT) and Telecom Italia SpA (NYSE: TI), are being far more cautious, refusing to commit to a set migration plan or timetable, though they agree that an all-IP network environment will be reached in time.

And others have cast doubt on whether BT can meet its 2010 deadline for switching its voice customers to an IP network, or what BT calls "broadband dialtone."

Scott Clavenna, Chief Analyst at Heavy Reading, has quipped that BT's 21st Century initiative is aptly named, as it gives the company another 90 or so years to complete its next-gen network (see Converge It & They Will Come).

And at the recent 21st Century Communications World Forum event in London, Forrester Research Inc. analyst Lars Godell said he didn't expect any operators to have completed their migration to an all-IP network before 2012, and that for most it would be 2020 before all customers are using a VOIP rather than a traditional POTS service.

Godell noted that there are always hidden problems, and that carriers would hit teething problems with the introduction of new multiservice access node technology over the next few years. He also noted how 3G wireless networks had suffered a number of setbacks, and that the first timetables for 3G service launches had been much later than originally stated.

And at the same event, Light Reading conducted an informal, in-person poll of the vendor exhibitors, many of which are hoping to win 21CN business from BT, asking whether they thought BT could make the 2010 deadline. Under the promise of anonymity, nearly 40 percent of the vendors polled said they thought BT couldn't make it, with some passing comments such as "Putting a man on the moon was an easier task." But just over 60 percent thought it was possible for BT to achieve its target date, though most made provisos, mostly regarding the unknown potential impact of regulatory changes (see BT Escapes Breakup – for Now and BT Proposes Stimulants ).

There are also those in the vendor community prepared to go on the record to voice their doubts. Bert Whyte, CEO of Network Equipment Technologies Inc. ( (NYSE: NWK), and a Brit by birth (he likes football, not soccer), is worried that BT is being too bold.

"Nobody else is being so radical. BT is saying constantly, 'We're the first to do this,' but it may also be the last to do it this way. I don't see any other incumbents adopting the same approach, and that worries me."

Whyte is also puzzled by BT's network plans and the carrier's intention to deliver video services. "BT's overall network architecture proposition is sound – reduce the number of central offices that need intelligence and go to a more centralized model that helps to cut costs. That's OK for voice, but not for video, where you need more intelligence and content-entry points near the edge of the network. I can't see where BT can ingest local video content, which they will surely need to do, with the planned IP architecture."

Adds Whyte: "If I was the U.K. government or a BT investor, I'd be worried about how BT is planning to spend nearly $20 billion. And I'm worried that no one else seems to be questioning BT's plans. And to think they can achieve this by 2010 is highly unrealistic."

"There's certainly a need for convergence, but ripping out the public switched network to get there is a bit radical for me," concludes the CEO.

BT says it is still on track to meet its timetable, with Joe Kelly, chief spokesman for BT's 21CN, adding: "It's still deliverable, and we never said it was going to be easy. BT always recognized that its 21CN plan was going to be challenging."

— Ray Le Maistre, International News Editor, Light Reading

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