BT wants to pull the plug on its phone network

via Flickr © saschaaa (CC BY-ND 2.0)

via Flickr © saschaaa (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Just fifteen years after the proposed introduction of its "21st Century Network", BT has, at last, got round to thinking about retiring its venerable analogue fixed-line network and going "all digital". But, as you might expect given its antecedents, the incumbent UK telco isn't in any particular hurry. It has told Ofcom, the UK regulator, that the transformation will take at least a decade.

British telecoms journalists well remember the deluge of press releases to which we were subjected at the end of the 1990s when BT announced the (fairly) imminent arrival of its much-vaunted 21st Century Network. We were shepherded to press conference after press conference, and sent on press trip after press trip to exotic places like Cardiff and Portsmouth to witness the inauguration of a couple of kilometres of the all-singing, all-dancing, all-digital network of the future that we would all be using and enjoying the benefits of within a couple of years. We are, of course, still waiting.

Bluff Matt Bross, then BT's CTO and the man tasked with selling the concept of the 21st Century Network to the UK's Fourth Estate gamely roamed Britain carrying with him a small, spherical, multi-coloured plastic latticework teacher's aide that expanded with a flick of the wrist and a mighty cry of "Abra-sodding-cadabra" into a large spherical multi-coloured plastic latticework globe that was meant to illustrate the scope, size and all round technical wizziness of the great new network. Either that or the General Theory of Relativity.

Indeed, for quite a while Matt Bross seemed to be surgically attached to the plastic thingy. It got so bad that reporters assembled in various BT office around the UK to sit through yet another presentation of a project that seemed long on optimism and short on reality, would blench and quail when the first of the assembled throng to spot the big man making his way to the podium would whisper, "Matt's here, and he's got that bloody ball!" Bets would then be taken on the hours, minutes and seconds the presentation would take. Small fortunes were won and lost.  I wonder what happened to that little big toy when Matt Bross left BT for the rather more regimented charms of the upper management of Huawei? Perhaps it's in a locked cupboard in Shenzhen.

Mind, you Matt Bross wasn't the only one to move on from BT. Paul Reynolds went to run New Zealand Telecom and Ben Verwaayen went to Alcatel and the hissing digital steam keeping the 21st Century Network bobbing around centre stage condensed into cold dampness and eventual silence.

Until today!! Because BT now wants the regulator to loosen its grip and permit it to shutter its analogue fixed line network the better to be able to compete with ISPs and so-called "webscale" upstart rivals that have been all-IP since their inception.

The incumbent wants to move all its subscribers, residential and enterprise, to all-IP services and is pressing Ofcom to rescind the obligation it currently must meet to provide a "traditional' copper-based analogue fixed line telephone service. Management of the old network is the responsibility of BT's allegedly 'arms-reach' Openreach unit.

Commenting BT's approach to Ofcom, Mark Shurmer, group director of regulatory affairs at BT said: “We believe obsolete regulation should be rolled back, rather than clinging on until the last user dies. What we are looking for is a kind of 'sunset clause' that will help customers to plan.” Yes, it looks like it's a one-way trip to Dignitas for the remaining non-digital dinosaurs.

Openreach, which is tasked with providing competitive, rival retail comms companies with  wholesale access to BT's network on equal terms with the rest of the company has always been something of a problem to the regulator. The likes of Sky and TalkTalk have long argued that Openreach should be structurally separated from its parent company to ensure transparency and fairness in its dealings with BT's competitors

BT though is resisting and wants deregulation instead, not least because a slacker regulatory grip would allow it to use SDN and NFV and so control the network centrally from the incumbent's data centres. All very IT. It would also save Openreach a shedload of cash.

Under current Ofcom rules the unique data Openreach has must be kept physically separate from the rest of BT's data to ensure genuine competition.

Mark Shurmer says deregulation will “level the playing field” between all the comms companies and OTT service providers. He says, “Regulation has not kept up at all with the growth in over-the-top services. Some of the undertakings have basically become quite outdated.” (a wry smile is probably permissible at this point).

Meanwhile, within the next three weeks, Ofcom will publish its "Strategic Market Review" the first comprehensive analysis of all the facets of the the UK's comms market and industry in 10 years. It is expected that the document will outline areas regarded as being ripe for reform. Sharon White, the new-ish head of Ofcom, has already let it be known that the growing strength of OTT players might well result a “lighter approach” to telecoms regulation.

Significantly, she has opined, “One of the reasons we think a separate Openreach would be better is it would allow a lot of deregulation.” BT doesn't like that at all.

There will be some interesting and probably shouty days ahead.

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