back to article BT needs to ditch its legacy to be competitive, says chief architect

In a world of new “agile” network players offering over-the-top services, BT is something of a dinosaur, having been privatised as far back as 1984 after previously running as a state monopoly. Certainly in terms of its systems, the business is weighed down by legacy in a way that newer network providers are unencumbered from …

  1. Korev Silver badge

    Fibre to the premises not copper?

    Maybe BT can put fibre to the premises rather than faff with copper...

    1. AndrueC Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: Fibre to the premises not copper?

      ..well the chap's name is Glass.

    2. AndrueC Silver badge

      Re: Fibre to the premises not copper?

      Did you read the bit about legacy systems? It's not just software he's talking about. 90% of BT's physical telephony network is legacy. That's a helluva lot of copper that's already in place and proving to still be at least quite useful to most people.

      BT can't just wave a magic wand and replace their copper with fibre overnight. It's been calculated by another web site that it would take at least ten years even if the entire country dedicated itself to the task. It's not even just about money. We simply don't have enough telecoms engineers at the moment. Not even if we could rely on immigrants. We'd have to undertake a massive training and recruitment drive. Universities would have to be on board to ensure we have enough courses. Schools would probably have to be on board to encourage students to take that career path.

      During the FTTP roll-out you'd probably see no further development of BT's network. Probably even worse standards of repair and longer lead times for new installations. The site that ran some numbers implied that if BT had gone that route instead of DSL back in the late 90s they still wouldn't have finished and those of you currently unlucky enough to be on crappy ADSL would still be on analogue modems.

      And you know all those telecoms engineers? I think the site reckoned on 40,000 eventually being required. That's great. But what do you do with those after the ten years are up? Fibre needs less maintenance than copper. So now you have maybe 30,000+ telecoms engineers out of work. Universities laying off hundreds of lecturers and mothballing class rooms.

      I don't agree with all that BT does or has done (their proposal for G.FAST still annoys me) but you cannot just ignore the existing local loop nor the huge effort that would be required to replace it with fibre.

      The biggest mistake I see is that BT wasn't forced/didn't choose to go FTTP on new builds a decade ago. A few apparently were done but in such a crappy way that copper overlays had to be added to provide the residents with ADSL. Madness!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Fibre to the premises not copper?

        Do you remember when the UK decided to change mains gas from coal gas to natural gas?

        It wasn't a big bang all at once operation, it was done regionally and street by street. Same as you might with copper=>fibre. Thereby avoiding the need for a near-infinite number of workers to do the job in a finite time.

        There's still a few quids worth of BT copper in the ground, especially for someone who can prove legitimate ownership when selling it (rather than fencing through some dodgy dealer and getting a fraction of the true value). £50 billion at 2011 prices:

        http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/09/22/bt_copper_cable_theft/

        Btw, the people in the Openreach vans are technicians, not engineers. Both sorts have very valuable roles to play. More technicians are needed. BT don't seem to think they need more engineers, they seem to think they need fewer engineers.

        The people in the Murphy vans? They don't seem to get much training. So it must be simples, right?

        1. AndrueC Silver badge

          Re: Fibre to the premises not copper?

          One difference between mains and coal gas is that gas is fungible. If I was still being piped coal gas it probably wouldn't matter (I don't know - I'm assuming that my boiler would burn either without any difference).

          But if I was still using my 56k USR Robotics box while waiting for BT to finish rolling out FTTP that would definitely matter.

          I found the article I talked about in my first post..

          "So with an engineering team 19 times bigger at Openreach, in four years working at the same rate they would passed 855,000 premises with FTTH, or if they had started in 2009 we would have 1.5 million FTTH premises passed. Of course to scale this up to a roll-out that matches the VDSL2 footprint of 23 to 24 million premises, it is not a simple multiplier as the number busy dealing with existing copper issues will remain static, so lets assume around half the Openreach staff are involved in the FTTH roll-out and the rest are doing the usual faults and installs. Scaling this up Openreach would need an extra 130,000 staff with an annual wage bill of £2.6 billion to have kept pace (Openreach engineer starting salary is in the £19,000 to £21,000 region, and we have ignored the extra costs of training, fleet vehicles etc for this simple projection)."

          Ouch.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Fibre to the premises not copper?

            Your assumption is unsafe. Many appliances required physical changes to be converted from coal gas to natural gas - typically a burner change at minimum. Sometimes the whole appliance would need replacing. Changes were also required further up the network, e.g. at the gas equivalent of substations. The conversion programme was architected, planned, delivered, and largely worked without issue. But back then no corporation was looking for a way to make a quick buck.

            The gas conversion was largely delivered by a separate workforce with different training and experience and tools and processes from the routine Gas Board (as it then was) people. And presumably the same could apply to copper->FTTP works, IF the will existed to make it happen.

            I like the thinkbroadband folk but I'm not sure MrSaffron's logic in that article entirely holds water, though it's probably as good a starting point as you'll get in public (CityFibreCity's published volume rollout cost numbers were a clearly a joke from day 1). I still wish Mr Saffron would use the proper terminology for engineers vs technicians.

            1. AndrueC Silver badge
              Meh

              Re: Fibre to the premises not copper?

              Your assumption is unsafe. Many appliances required physical changes to be converted from coal gas to natural gas

              Well okay, yes, from a technical perspective. But what I meant was what difference did it make to the consumer? The only difference you've pointed out so far is that changing is a pain in the arse so actually I might rather you leave my supply alone.

              My house would be as warm in winter on coal gas as it is on natural gas. Thus there is no pressure from me on my supplier to change and maybe even some resistance to it. However if my internet connection is out of date it damn' sure impacts my life and there would be considerable pressure from me if I was still stuck on an analogue modem.

              So I don't see them as comparable roll-outs.

            2. hoola Bronze badge

              Re: Fibre to the premises not copper?

              Correct on the changes of the jets in the appliances but there is one monumental difference, the gas went down the same pipes. You may have needed to tweak the end point but that is very simply job compared to having to install new fibres.

              The move from copper to fibre is a fundamental technology change and is very different. Okay, so after the conversion there were problems with leaks because the new gas did something to joints or was at a different pressure, I cannot remember what. What does stick in my mind was the engineers going down the road drilling a small hole every few yards and then putting a gas detector over it.

          2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

            Re: Fibre to the premises not copper?

            "Do you remember when the UK decided to change mains gas from coal gas to natural gas?

            It wasn't a big bang all at once operation, it was done regionally and street by street. Same as you might with copper=>fibre. Thereby avoiding the need for a near-infinite number of workers to do the job in a finite time."

            ---------

            "One difference between mains and coal gas is that gas is fungible. If I was still being piped coal gas it probably wouldn't matter (I don't know - I'm assuming that my boiler would burn either without any difference)."

            The burners had to be changed to cope with a different gas/air mix. But the supply to premises was delivered through the old pipes. There was a need for a natural gas backbone.

            In fact it mirrored the FTTC arrangement pretty well. That's why it didn't take a near-infinite number of workers finite time.

        2. HeavyAnalyst

          Re: BT copper worth £1bn not 50

          If you look at the comments to the article you referenced you will find some more informed estimates of the value which put it at £1bn.

      2. farnz
        Pint

        Re: Fibre to the premises not copper?

        The one that bugs me is the lack of a well thought through FTTPoD service. It'd be nice if I could save the cost of a few thousand pints, and have my existing copper last mile replaced by an FTTP service, where the FTTP speed was exactly the same as the max sync speed my old copper service permitted.

        Thus, if I'm paying the monthly fees for ADSL2+, offer me 24/1 FTTP at the same monthly price as ADSL2+, as long as I pay the full cost (anything from thousands if I'm served by an FTTC cab, to hundreds of thousands if I'm on a 10 km exchange only line) to have the FTTP installed. If I'm paying for FTTC 80/20, give me 80/20 FTTP.

        Then BT gets revenue to help fund the transition, and has a silencer for people who complain (you *can* get 330/30 if you're willing to pay capex. Or 80/20 at the same price as everyone else pays, or a stable 24/1, or...)

  2. cs94njw

    > having been there 29 years

    *cough* legacy *cough*

  3. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "unfortunately that’s what makes the press"

    Sorry, if you are a services provider, it is quite normal to be judged on your poorest performance because that is what your customer might get.

    I'd like to see the ad world in a universe where companies had to advertise only their least appealing offering.

    "10 kbps guaranteed !"

    I think that would set some things straight.

    1. John Mangan

      Re: "unfortunately that’s what makes the press"

      "I'd like to see the ad world in a universe where companies had to advertise only their least appealing offering."

      But then what you would see is companies just refusing to supply a service anywhere that their figures will look bad, There are seldom over-arching simple answers to complex issues.

    2. David Lewis 2

      Re: "unfortunately that’s what makes the press"

      "<10 kbps guaranteed !"

      FIFY

  4. Richard Jones 1
    Stop

    What About Copper's one Big Advantage?

    With copper, when the power cuts come calling the phone still works, computers, routers and phone charger do not. Just how would fibre to the building work when the power goes off?

    Given the still dire state of radio communications, (think mobile telephone service) I would hate to have nothing to rely on in an emergency. My daughter uses her mobile, I always call back on the land line if something needs to be sorted out, the mobile is grade one rubbish for communications. Thanks are due to EE and O" for their perfect(?) deliverables.

    About the only callers who can get through to me on my mobile when I am at home are the insufferable 'cold callers and fraud pushers'. The network fails others, I no longer give out my mobile number to anyone who matters as it is so unreliable. I live about 8 miles from the M25 and less than a mile from another M road, so hardly in the back of unknown beyond.

    1. JWPiglet

      Re: What About Copper's one Big Advantage?

      Ofcom require the ONT is equipped with a battery backup which must last at least 1 hour, unlike most cordless phone base stations.

    2. razorfishsl

      Re: What About Copper's one Big Advantage?

      What is even more bollox , is that most of these "fiber" boxes come with shittly little made in china voltage buck convertors , that they INSIST you should always unplug.

      you can get a battery powered phone, but not a battery powered fiber unit?

      I Mean WTF!!!!!

  5. Commswonk Silver badge

    No matter how many times I read this...

    I still cannot determine with any certainty what is meant by "legacy". I suspect that the presentation might have been a buzzword bingo session that didn't survive the translation into a news article.

    From the top of this comments page: the business is weighed down by legacy in a way that newer network providers are unencumbered from … leaves me wondering if someone thinks BT ought to drop allegedly outdated concepts such as the provision of a telephone service.

    I don't doubt that fixed line services are exhibiting a drop in call numbers and line provision, but that could simply be because email has supplanted the fax machine. Obviously mobile telephony and Skype will have made inroads into fixed line services, but the demise of voice calls? A reduction is not a demise.

    The whole thing just seems opaque.

    1. razorfishsl

      Re: No matter how many times I read this...

      Legacy , is anything that has been replaced by a new model or technology.

      As in All applei Phones before the I7 are legacy equipment.

      1. Commswonk Silver badge

        Re: No matter how many times I read this...

        Yes well, obviously... in a sense. But it would make no sense for a company to incur huge capital expenditure (which its customers have to pay for sooner or later) just because something new and shiny comes along, unless there is a really pressing reason to do so.

        I queried the use of the word "legacy" in he first place because it gives no clear idea of exactly what he was referring to.

        I hope you aren't suggesting that I should agree to scrapping perfectly good double glazing (which some salesmen really seem to expect me to do) or tear out a perfectly satisfactory kitchen to replace it with another at enormous cost. Capital equipment is not disposable like some sort of fashion item... like an I7 for example.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: No matter how many times I read this...

          "I hope you aren't suggesting that I should agree to scrapping perfectly good desktop PCs (which some salesmen really seem to expect me to do) at enormous cost. Capital equipment is not disposable like some sort of fashion item..."

          You might think so, I might think so, but the Emperor of IT for the last decade or two has measured the size of his/her empire (and thus the amount of "compensation") by the size of the budget, not the value they bring to the organisation. Strange but true. Networking/comms is probably a little different, not so much of an 'estate' to roll over every couple of years regardless of benefit.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It's not just the hardware that's legacy

    BT seems to me rotten to the core.

    The overall BT company structure seems to be crippled by their early rush to set up dispersed call centres. The staff within these call centres now struggle to communicate with each other via poorly integrated helpdesk software systems that just can't cope. The result is that it takes hours of phone calls to places like the Philippines to get a local technician to commit twenty minutes attention to any actual problem. This is to say nothing of the common problems with colloquial or even standard English and the sometimes doubtful voice connections. Representatives sometimes don't know each others names, roles, departments or locations. And as for a land line phone company being able to provide a direct line number to call back a named individual: almost no chance!

    Their systems also seem to involve very long lead times to install even the most basic facility, then yet more call centre time is wasted bypassing those same time limits.

    I can't help feeling all this is at least in part a deliberate senior management tactic to exploit for a long as possible their monopoly control of Openreach and extract as much cash as possible from the rump of their client base before we vote with our feet and abandon the company.

    1. Commswonk Silver badge

      Re: It's not just the hardware that's legacy

      ...before we vote with our feet and abandon the company.

      In favour of which other company, may I ask?

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