BT promises truly universal broadband

Fibre-to-the-home and IP telephony will be key parts of BT's 21st Century Network

BT is planning to transform its UK telecommunications infrastructure into a pure IP-based network by 2009, allowing customers to get instant broadband access anywhere in the country over a range of devices. The scheme will see BT gradually abandon its existing ATM and PSTN voice network.

If the 21st Century Network project, as BT calls it, is a success, the telco will be able to deliver voice and data services over a network supporting Internet Protocol and Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS). This network will make a significantly greater use of fibre-optic connections than today. In some cases fibre will reach as far as the end-user's premises, superseding today's legacy copper lines.

"This is a decisive move from narrowband to broadband, and from PSTN to broadband," said Paul Reynolds, chief executive of BT Wholesale, at a press conference at the BT Centre in London on Wednesday.

"This is the most radical strategy of a telco business you will see anywhere in the world. It's fundamentally based on broadband everywhere," Reynolds added, who admitted that BT's existing network is not capable of coping with the predicted growth in broadband data services. He added: "We will have a single network running multiple services, not multiple networks running multiple services in a complicated way."

BT plans to begin mass migration from PSTN to IP in 2007. It is starting with a voice over IP trial involving 1,500 customers in Cambridge and Woolwich this year.

Analysts have suggested that voice over IP could make a massive hole in the voice revenues enjoyed by telcos such as BT. BT, though, is playing down this risk. "Voice over IP is an opportunity, not a threat," said Matt Bross, BT's chief technology officer.

A second trial will investigate fibre-to-the-home, providing telephone and broadband services over fibre to a further 1,500 people.

Building the 21st Century Network will take up most of BT's £3bn annual budget for capital expenditure between 2004 and 2009. Once the project is complete, high-speed data services should be universally available across the UK, over both fixed and wireless links. BT calls this access the "broadband dial tone", comparing it to the buzzing noise a fixed-line telephone makes to show that it is functioning. "With the broadband dial tone, you will be able to plug any IP-based device into the network and it will immediately recognise that the network is up and ready," Reynolds explained.