BT CTO says quantum to spur network upheaval in next decade

Howard Watson of BT is working hard to protect the UK operator's networks from security threats related to the development of quantum computing.

Iain Morris, International Editor

October 24, 2023

4 Min Read
Howard Watson of BT talks to Dario Talmesio of Omdia
BT's head technology executive is concerned about emerging security threats and working hard to address them.(Source: Kelsey Ziser/Light Reading)

PARIS – Network X 2023 – As the long-serving head technology executive at BT, Howard Watson is a recognizable face on the events circuit. But when he arrives on stage at this week's Network X show in Paris – which, Light Reading can happily report, is not overrun with bedbugs – he is newly sporting a small badge on his jacket lapel that signifies a keen interest in quantum computing and membership of UKQuantum, a kind of government-backed club that seeks to ensure the UK has a big future role in development.

Quantum has clearly become one of the latest fixations for the UK telecom incumbent as Watson and his colleagues think about what comes next on the technology front. Over much of the past year, the big talking point has been generative artificial intelligence. But Watson believes quantum computing will supplant it by the mid-2020s, and he is alert to what that could mean for people in his profession.

"First of all, quantum computers are happening now and how large they'll be in terms of qubits, and how connected they'll become, is a critical thing for all of us," he told Network X attendees during a fireside chat with Dario Talmesio, a research director at Omdia (a Light Reading sister company). Ultimately, that could mean reinventing TCP/IP, what Deutsche Telekom boss Timotheus Höttges once called the "lingua franca" of the Internet. Watson says he would not be surprised to see a "big networking revolution" at some point in the next decade.

Before then, the priority is to safeguard current networks against emerging quantum-related threats. "The other thing is to ensure today's encryption is becoming less vulnerable to that store-now, hack-later risk," he said. Experts fear that cyber criminals and geopolitical enemies could try harvesting data now, confident that quantum computing will eventually become powerful enough to break through the encryption barriers that were built.

Hence a BT rollout of quantum key distribution, an advanced encryption technique based on quantum mechanics, for Ernst & Young and HSBC at three metro network locations in the City of London. The idea is to "prove out" the initial opportunities to make networks "quantum-secure," explained Watson. "The UK has broader ambitions around computing and networking and quantum sensors," he told Network X.

Beyond CTO

Watson's job title has also changed in the last year to reflect BT's prioritization of security at the network and IT levels. Formerly just the company's chief technology officer, he is today BT's chief security and networks officer. The word order shows just how seriously BT is approaching the topic as cyberattacks and phishing – when fake emails purporting to be from reputable companies lure people into disclosing passwords and bank details – are now increasingly commonplace.

BT's strategy under Watson has meant employing 400 people within a unit called Protect BT Group to look after customer data. The scale of the threat is frightening. Each month, BT and its contingent of security experts now detect around 1.5 billion scams or attempts. Every IP address is targeted about 3,000 times a day by bad actors on the lookout for potential vulnerabilities, according to the BT executive.

The defense strategy has changed dramatically in recent years, too. Attacks were often historically based on distributed denial of service (DDoS), bombarding individual sites with Internet traffic to overwhelm them. Companies like BT would erect a "big citadel" around their infrastructure to keep out the bad actors, said Watson. These days, cybercrime is often more sophisticated in nature, with state-backed criminals using advanced malware to penetrate firewalls, he explained. For about 545 apps that are exposed to the public Internet, he is working to phase out the single-factor authentication systems that allow people inside.

Under government rules first introduced in 2020, BT has also been forced to strip out products supplied by Huawei, a controversial Chinese vendor deemed a security threat in the UK and various other countries. The operator has until the end of this year to remove Huawei from its mobile core and must have taken it out of the 5G radio access network by the end of 2027. It's an effort that has cost the operator about £500 million (US$610.8 million) in total, reported Watson, and one that has probably made 5G rollout more challenging than it would otherwise have been.

Watson bristles at the suggestion his job is mainly about "replumbing" as BT phases out legacy network technologies and IT systems while taking advantage of the new. Soaring demand for network services shows consumers are excited by and dependent on what BT has to offer. "They don't want to pay any more, but they love it," he said. That sales-related conundrum is one that not just BT needs to solve.

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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).

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