BT Turns On 21CN, IPTV

BT has hooked up the first real customers to its spanking new next-gen network, while its IPTV launch is set for next week

November 28, 2006

5 Min Read
BT Turns On 21CN, IPTV

BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) has transferred its first real customers from its PSTN to its 21CN next-generation network, starting a challenging five-year plan to migrate 20 million lines to the single all-IP infrastructure it is rolling out across the U.K. (See BT Switches on 21CN and BT: 21CN Slips, IPTV Nears.)

The British incumbent, which first unveiled its 21CN plans in June 2004, plans to have all its U.K. customers hooked up to the 21CN by 2011, a process that will cost £10 billion (US$19.5 billion) in capex and opex. Ultimately, BT plans to decommission its 16 legacy voice and data networks. (See BT: 21CN Slips, IPTV Nears and BT Moves Ahead With Mega Project.)

The carrier has also confirmed to Light Reading that it will launch its IPTV service, BT Vision, next Monday, Dec. 4. More on that later.

'Bishop, are you there?'
This morning, BT hooked up its first set of actual paying customers to its 21CN, and 11-year-old Laura Wess, a pupil at the Wick and Marcross Church in Wales Primary School, became the first person to make a call across the new infrastructure. According to BT, she called the Right Reverend John Davies, the bishop of St. Asaph in North Wales, who has responsibility for education for the Church in Wales.

It's not clear whether the call was blessed.

Laura's school is in the village of Wick, near Cardiff in South Wales, the area designated as the launching pad for 21CN. (See Wales to Get 21CN First.)

BT says more than 100 customers were switched over to the 21CN "in the early hours of this morning," and that "by the end of summer 2007, around 350,000 customer lines in South Wales are expected to have been migrated to the new infrastructure."

The first customers are connected to one of the newly installed MSANs (multiservice access nodes) supplied by Fujitsu Telecommunications Europe Ltd. housed in Wick's local exchange. In future exchanges "we will use either Fujitsu or Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. ," says a spokeswoman. (See Fujitsu Shares Its 21CN Success and BT Unveils 21CN Suppliers.)

The Cardiff area is served by 50 local exchanges, while IP voice switching will be handled by Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) systems installed in three new metro nodes, or "super telephone exchanges," as BT calls them. (See Ericsson to Bring Partners to 21CN Party.)

The spokeswoman says end users lines are being "physically disconnected from the legacy network and reconnected to 21CN" at the local exchange, while at a larger BT exchange in Cardiff, "the network data of [the] migrating customers was reconfigured, sending their incoming and outgoing calls from the Wick exchange on to 21CN."

BT staff will closely monitor the initial transfer before switching the rest of Wick's few hundred residents across to the 21CN. But the carrier isn't decommissioning any TDM gear just yet. "We'll start switching off legacy equipment when it makes sense to do so from an engineering perspective," says the spokeswoman.

Once the Cardiff area is all hooked up, BT plans to perform the same kind of migration in a number of major towns and cities, including London, Birmingham, Manchester, Belfast, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and, possibly, Crapstone, Devon.

Ovum Ltd. analyst Mike Cansfield believes that "Wick signals the start of a move in the U.K. from the networks and processes of the twentieth century into new networks and processes more appropriate to the Internet age of a new millennium." [Ed. note: Woohoo!]

But, adds Cansfield in a research note issued today, "as anyone with experience of project management knows, this is where the challenges really start. To complete the rollout in south Wales, and then across the rest of the U.K. by 2011, is an aggressive timescale. This will require all of BT's resources, those of its suppliers, and the rest of the industry to make it work on the ground. There is no certainty this can be achieved... This is just the start."

BT vision still under wraps
Separately, BT is promising to unveil its IPTV service to the media, and also make the service available to BT broadband customers, next Monday, Dec. 4.

The service, BT Vision, is powered by Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) IPTV technology and will offer a wide range of content from an on-demand menu, delivered over the user's broadband connection, along with regular TV channels, delivered via a rooftop aerial and a special connection on the customer's set-top box. (See Microsoft Wins at BT, BT Unveils IPTV Service, BT Signs More IPTV Deals, BT Adds to Vision Content , and BT Adds Music Video Deal.)

That method puts less strain on the broadband connection, because only the on-demand, unicast content is delivered over the DSL connection.

BT, though, is being coy about the extent of its initial launch. While a spokesman says the availability of the service is not limited by geography, he couldn't commit to saying the service will be immediately available to all of BT's 3 million broadband customers in the U.K.

Until Monday, the carrier is saying only that it is planning "a full commercial launch," without actually explaining what that means.

BT has a lot of competition in the U.K. when it comes to TV and video entertainment. Cable operator ntl group ltd. (Nasdaq: NTLI) and satellite TV/broadband service provider Sky are both strong players in the digital TV market.

But BT is hoping that its English Premiership soccer deal, which will allow the carrier to show games between the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool in "near live" time (starting about 5 hours after the game begins) beginning in September 2007, will attract customers. (See BT Wins Soccer Deal.)

— Ray Le Maistre, International News Editor, Light Reading

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