BT – automating complex network functions will underpin emerging enterprise technologies
Greg McCall, BT’s new Chief Networks Officer, talked to FutureNet World about the opportunities and challenges of his role.
On 1 November 2022, Greg McCall became BT’s Chief Networks Officer, heading up Network Services, a newly created organisation which brings together the design, delivery, and operations teams across Networks. The organisation comprises almost 6,500 colleagues globally with teams leading in areas such as Private Cloud, Mobile and Network Applications and Services.
Please could you explain the rationale for the creation of this organisation?
It’s first worth noting that the creation of our Network Services unit is part of a wider change which rebalances the networks and security elements across the entirety of BT Networks – with the aim of both simplifying our organisation and ensuring security is at the top of our agenda. Specifically on the creation of Networks Services, bringing our core Networks teams closer together is helping us to simplify operations, create clearer accountabilities across teams, and ultimately deliver better services to our customers. At a time when the demand for connectivity is rising, we think these changes will not only better equip us to manage the technological challenges that this presents, but also to better maximise its opportunities.
Is the reorganisation also due to the way operations need to change to support autonomous (zero-touch) networks and the proliferation of DevOps practices like CI/CD/CT which sort of collapses the old model into many, much smaller stages?
Our cloud-native transformation is something we’ve spoken about a lot over the past year or two as an integral part of our network modernisation efforts. Much of this work has been successfully completed – for example our new 5G core is live with over 10 million customers already transitioned onto it – so the reorganisation isn’t directly related to this. We do though expect those benefits around simplification of processes and closer integration of teams to greatly benefit areas such as DevOps, where our cloud-native approach does of course focus on smaller, more frequent upgrades across what is a more intelligent network.
The same is true when it comes to automation, which is important across all areas of BT Networks, whether it’s through enabling us to upgrade and enhance our networks in a faster and more efficient manner or monitoring and identifying issues within the context of operational resilience.
How does the change in operations and the prevalence of network automation play into your wider cloud migrations and the shift to cloud-native techs? How much is this intertwined with/dependent on the progress of 5G SA deployment?
Everything is very much connected in this respect. We’re making great progress on our journey towards building the UK’s best converged network infrastructure, and both edge compute and network cloud are integral to achieving this, not least by enabling enhanced network capabilities including automation.
Everything is then underpinned by our new cloud-native 5G core, which is an essential platform for the deployment of nationwide 5G SA services in the future. Ultimately the combination of a cloud-native converged network powering 5G SA will enable us to offer exactly the type of capabilities and services our customers need, both now and into the future. While right now the 5G services ecosystem is still in its infancy, as network quality and accessibility improve with the arrival of SA, so too will innovation and the services landscape.
What do you see as the main drivers for automation now and going forward? For example, the provisioning of private networks through slicing, being able to offer companies connectivity with a specific set of parameters to match particular applications and workloads?
Having automation built into our cloud-native core allows us to quickly and easily optimise the platform to support 5G SA and the new services that we see this enabling. Network slicing is certainly one such application that we’re exploring, in which automating complex network functions creates the potential to unlock a range of emerging enterprise technologies which require the ultra-low latency of 5G SA – including IoT and edge devices.
Through our 5G core we’ve also created a platform for network exposure, and we envisage that this too will help drive automation in the future, bringing our partners into the delivery process by giving them the ability to develop their own products using our network.
What do you see as your long-term goal – let’s say to 2030 because goals will always change as tech and the market evolve? What major initiatives do you need to put in place or to take to achieve those goals?
We have set a number of ambitious goals that we want to achieve in the coming years. Perhaps the one most relevant to what we’re discussing today is our ambition to deliver high performance 5G solutions across the entirety of the UK by 2028, supported by a unique, fully converged smart infrastructure. We’ve invested heavily in our network and worked tremendously hard to ensure we’re well on track to meet this goal.
Last month we announced the arrival of EE 5G to almost 500 smaller communities across the UK, ranging from smaller market towns and villages through to seasonal rural hotspots and some of our national parks – meaning the service is now available to customers in over 1,000 UK cities, towns and villages. We’re also supporting this goal through continued innovation, aimed at improving the reach, resilience and energy efficiency of our networks. For example, our Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and stratospheric partnerships with OneWeb and SPL respectively are vitally important in paving the way for connecting ultra-remote communities, emergency responders and disaster recovery units.
Our 5G network already covers over 60% of the UK population, having last year hit the 50% mark one full year ahead of schedule. So, it’s not about implementing major new initiatives, but rather striving to maintain our network leadership through ongoing investment and innovation, which will enable us to realise this and other ambitions.
How will relationships with hyperscalers help you meet those goals?
Our relationships with hyperscalers are always going to be important in enabling us to achieve our goals and ultimately deliver the best services to our customers. We already work closely with partners like Amazon, Google and Microsoft, and – given the fast-paced and ever-evolving nature of the industry we work within – we’re continuously exploring the potential of how and where their cloud technologies can further support our networks infrastructure.
How can you prepare for automation at the edge, given that exactly where and what the edge is still evolving?
One of the most important reasons behind us wanting to become cloud native was that it enables us to bring 5G to the edge as we roll out new services. As such, we’ve invested heavily in building a converged cloud architecture, supported by automation, that we know can support services at the edge of the network, delivering the reliability, latency and scalability needed via an always-on connection.
We talked about the 5G services ecosystem being in its infancy, but there are early-adopter examples, particularly in an enterprise private networks capacity, which demonstrate its potential. Whether that is in allowing organisations to maximise edge computing devices such as sensors and remote devices, or opening up the practical use of digital twins by providing a route for faster and cheaper testing and remote collaboration on complex, expensive or mission-critical equipment – we know the capability is there, but what’s also crucial is that we’ve created an infrastructure with the built-in scalability and reliability to support the widespread adoption of such technologies.