How an engineering mindset will make network consumable like cloud

Robin Farnan of Colt Technology Services talks to Contributing Editor Annie Turner about achieving a stellar NPS of 74, a proposed acquisition and global ambitions for the industry.

Robin Farnan has been Executive Vice President, Operations & Engineering at Colt Technology Services since September 2020 and with the company for six and a half years. Previously he was MD of BT Financial Technology Services, which he left in 2015 to work in IT services deciding, as he puts it, “to have a go at software engineering stuff.”

Farnan oversees about half of Colt Technology Services’ employees – some 2,500 staff across 30 countries. His responsibilities cover: engineering, that is, designing and building the network; service delivery & operations from customer installations to service assurance, including in-life customer experience; and global supply chain and logistics.

He says, “Almost anything Colt does, I’m involved with… I’ve brought the customer to the engineer and if you keep the customers at the forefront of your decision making, you’re not going to go far wrong…If you automate and simplify things, it’s all about customer experience. By being agile, we speed things up for the customers.”

The theory works: “We’ve just finished our Q1 with a Net Promoter Score of 74,” Farnan says. This is an extraordinary score for any industry and little short of miraculous for telco. In the same quarter, Colt scored 73 for service delivery and 70 for operations, measured by Net Easy Score (NES), a metric the operator adopted a couple of years ago. It’s a measure of simplicity and ease of interaction, across the whole customer journey from the initial sales stage to a billing query.

Farnan applies the principles of automation and simplification to projects large and small, and there is no shortage of either. Colt is about to replace its inventory system, which is capital intense and a major undertaking. It chose Amdocs as its partner which will work with Colt’s data lake team to create a single, accurate version of the truth. He observes, “Without data, you can’t automate – or you can, but it’s the old adage, rubbish in, rubbish out”.

Colt recently implemented a new voice monitoring system and is replacing its fault monitoring, reporting and provisioning systems. These are all multi-year projects. “In parallel, I can point to at least 50, smaller ongoing projects,” Farnan says, “that are not soaking up lots of CapEx. Some have no associated cost, it’s just our people thinking about how to simplify what they do to be more productive and provide a better customer experience.”

Mindset trumps automation

Farnan is a huge believer in process: “There are no silver bullets. Double down on process and what you’re trying to achieve and mirror that with lots of continuous improvements, which is all about mindset.”

He explains, “I’m very open to change. I’ve always been a risk taker, with a bring-it-on attitude, but my learning is many people are averse to change, so change management is key because mindset is more important than the automation and the technology behind the automation.” Change management was the subject of Farnan’s post-graduate dissertation.

Colt lives in a state of constant change, driven by customers, but a change of a different magnitude is looming. Last November the operator announced its proposed acquisition of Lumen EMEA, currently going through regulatory approval processes. Lumen claims to be the most peered network in the world, recently announcing 400G IP transit ports across its internet backbone network in the US and Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Farnan describes this as “an incredible opportunity” and says that scale is a “massive” motivation for the proposed acquisition.

He underlines the importance of scale in the industry by pointing to the move from IP VPN to SD-WAN, which requires provisioning of overlay and underlay layers. He elaborates, “The underlay can become back-up, it can be 4G, 5G or in some countries, internet access. It’s new and not as efficient as it needs to be because it’s growing at 140% year on year and continues on that curve.

“We’ve automated 83% of the tasks involved – we won’t be able to automate them all, we will still need some human beings – but the coolest thing is that it wasn’t achieved by a top-down edict, but by curious engineers thinking about how to handle the demand. The best change always comes from ‘the bottom’ – that is what I mean about mindset.”

He continues, “[SD-WAN] customers always want new features but if you make sure they are in your data lake after the first use, they become reusable, pluggable. When the next customer comes along, deployment is automated. This is how I’ve kept my headcount flat but absorbed 140% growth in SD-WAN. It’s how you scale – you can’t just keep throwing human beings at the problem.”

First-mover advantage

The core SDN backbone is another instance of looking to fulfil customers’ needs. “We worked very, very hard on it because it allows us to be far more agile in bringing on new services,” Farnan says. That work was recognised by Colt recently winning Gartner’s inaugural Eye on Innovation Award for Communications Service Providers (CSPs) in the Europe, the Middle East and Africa region.

Farnan says, “This is leveraging technology and the ecosystem that exist already – while consuming 81% less power. Success is down to people, process, system – and I’ll add planet to that because it plays to the ESG [environmental, social and governance] strategy.”

“Our target is to reduce power consumption by 15 GigaWatt hours, which is huge, but I’m also working with our partners, whether that’s Cisco or whoever, you’ve got to influence them…I’m always happy to be a first mover and trial things; the technology that’s coming along like the pluggable optics, the transponders, the router, the ZR+ [a 400G interoperability solution] that Cisco bought with Acacia, he continues. “We’re riding the wave.”

Moving forward

Farnan states, “Every day, every year, I’m challenging the business about how we can remove legacy and future-proof ourselves. Legacy is a drag. You can’t ‘talk’ to older equipment. To leverage the partner ecosystem, everyone must have APIs.” Colt is scheduled to switch off its SDH TDM network at the end of April, which will help it simplify the infrastructure. At the same time, the engineering team is thinking about what needs to happen for the network to be consumed like cloud is today – the subject of Bart Janssen’s presentation at MPLS SD and AI Net World 2023 in late April. Janssen is Colt’s Senior Specialist in Packet Architecture.

Farnan explains, “You’ve heard about PaaS, iPaaS, SaaS and whatever as a Service but service is not the network”. He pays tribute to “the amazing work by TM Forum on the OSS and BSS” adding “the orchestration of the optical layer and network synchronisation are not about infrastructure so much as services and applications.

“The trick [for the network] is getting all the end-to-end BSS, OSS and NMS [network management systems] to work together, orchestrate and sync because to some extent network remains ‘standalone’.” He points out, “We’ve got thousands of services on-demand, you could argue that’s the best automation. Literally, some big customers in America have just a few keystrokes and 20 minutes later, the service is up and running.”

Going truly global

He continues, “Systems and technology allow you to have end-to-end networks that talk and that’s exactly what we’re are looking at. Today the networks interconnect, but no-one’s got one global infrastructure. If you could get them to talk to each other in common languages, it would be far more efficient and better for customers. You need like-minded players in the ecosystem; people who are willing to open up their APIs and technology and about how they see things.”

This is hindered now because a single transmission can involve so many players, with many different kinds of technology in the multiple links, with SLAs piled on top of SLAs and everyone needs margin. “Who is selling to the end customer?,” Farnan asks. “Managing multiple languages and stages of a project can be challenging, especially when it results in delayed and fragmented communication with customers.” He is optimistic. “Imagine if we could offer customers a single view of their ticket status for example? This is where blockchain technology could be a game-changer.”

And progress is being made. “We do a lot of work with Windstream [which offers very high bandwidth and networking solutions to everyone from households to enterprises in the US]. They wanted to prove 400G services from the US over subsea [cables] to Frankfurt, so we worked with them on a PoC [proof of concept] and were able to prove it,” Farnan says. “They’re very open and a great bunch of engineers. We don’t feel threatened by each other because we’re looking at what they have and what we have so we can work to make it seamless. Those like-minded players in the ecosystem are going to be key if we want telecom to be more global,” he concludes.

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