BT's mobility strategy

Q&A: Is BT really planning to roll out a mobile network using unlicensed spectrum, and what about those Fon rumours? Head of mobility Steve Andrews tells all

You don't have to be a communications junkie to have picked up on the fact that BT is going mobile in a big way.

Numerous advertisements on station walls and in the press promote Fusion handsets — dual-mode devices designed to switch between the normal cellular network and Wi-Fi connections — for the home and for business. Although the initial Fusion devices were unattractive by current standards, newer models being introduced offer a more compelling mix of form and function.

The company is also the driving force behind the Wireless Cities initiative, which will see twelve urban centres across the UK turned into "hotzones", a widening of BT's existing Openzone Wi-Fi hotspot network.

It is also no secret that BT is pushing hard for spectrum to be made available for the long-distance wireless technology WiMax when Ofcom launches auctions later this year. At the recent 3GSM conference, some sources even suggested that BT regretted having pulled out of the mobile game by selling off BT Cellnet, now known as O2, and was in effect trying to roll out a new mobile network using unlicensed wireless spectrum instead of GSM or 3G.

Last week, ZDNet UK spoke with BT's head of mobility, Steve Andrews, to discuss these and other issues.

Q: BT has been increasingly busy in the mobile sector. What is your strategy?
A: The mobility strategy is focused on three core segments of the market: consumer, BT Business [for SMEs], and the corporate enterprise market. Our strategy is founded on building from a customer's requirement of always being connected. What we're aiming to do for our customers is allow them access to applications — services such as video and, of course, voice — in the office or out and about. What we want is that customers can always be in touch with whatever they want to do with a device.

To achieve that, we are wirelessly enabling, wherever possible, BT's fixed network. That means wirelessly enabling at particular places where customers are likely to have intensive communications.

And this is where Fusion comes in…?
The first part of our strategy has been a hub strategy for the house. We now have almost a million hubs installed in people's homes and offices, about 800k of which are consumer hubs. That means people can connect now to BT's broadband network wirelessly with a whole raft of devices.

We also extended our Openzone offer for applications and services to consumers, so you can take whatever you like doing at home out and about to thousands of locations. We are now extending our strategy to Wireless Cities.

The consumer offer is absolutely focused, given that we've got the infrastructure, to applications and services that are attractive to customers to use. We spent a lot of time working on making mobile phones broadband-centric with Fusion. There will this year be over a hundred Wi-Fi-enabled phones.

How many models will BT make available?
At the moment we are working through our ranging of how many BT will have — we are planning that now. The second thing is that you will start to see an increased focus on the applications, such as linking BT Vision and other services into our mobility platform.

In the enterprise area, we're doing a lot of work with Microsoft to allow Microsoft applications to be used out and about — email and VoIP-type services, IM and field force automation applications. We have a product that we've developed with Microsoft [the HTC Excalibur, or S620] — we're the first to integrate [SIP-enabled] VoIP into that.

We will also extend hosted email, which we already offer, to the mobility proposition. So push email for the Microsoft phone will come out with that phone, as will Windows Mobile 6.

One of the big problems with dual-mode handsets has been battery life, particularly when running power-hungry applications. Has this now improved?
The battery life is not bad but needs improving. We're still doing more work to improve it. For the launch, we will achieve the threshold of using it for a day, charging it at night-time. We also have extended battery packs in trial at the moment.

We have various segments of the market that we're pursuing with mobility. We will have field force automation applications...

... with a number of deals for enabling field forces to manage their workers who are out and about. We also have quite an increase of focus on tracking goods, and increased focus on wireless LAN generally, and applications for hospitals and government.

Several people have suggested that BT is essentially rolling out a mobile network using unlicensed spectrum...
To describe it as rolling out a mobile phone network is the wrong description. What we are doing is enhancing our mobile offer. It's a very competitive market — we want to add more and differentiate from the me-too mobile propositions.

How we see it is this: there is still a big role to play for traditional mobile services, and we've chosen to go down an MVNO [mobile virtual network operator, a type of rebranding] route with Vodafone.

It was suggested to me at 3GSM that BT was dissatisfied with the deal it was getting with Vodafone...
No, we are very pleased with that. There is nothing we can't do with the MVNO that we could have done with Cellnet or O2. In terms of getting to market we are very pleased with our arrangement.

What were trying to do is extend our broadband network from indoors to outdoors. We see a huge growth in interest from consumers and businesses on broadband-rich applications and services. IP and broadband is the best technology today for delivering those services, so why limit those services to the home and office when we know we can differentiate our mobile offer by bringing that to customers out and about?

Eighty to 90 percent will not have that service in geographical terms, so mobile is excellent for fast communications. When you're sitting at home or in a coffee shop or hotel, you can get access to rich communications — you want to try and get the best of both worlds. I don't see that we regret not having a mobile network

What about WiMax? BT seems to be pushing hard for the spectrum to be made available.
Wimax technology sounds exciting. If it does what it says on the tin, it could be a very interesting proposition.

We still haven't decided what role it might play. It would be highly dependent on the penetration of WiMax devices. My forecast for the next 3-5 years is that the most predominant availability of mobile devices will be GSM or 3G coupled with Wi-Fi. For the foreseeable future I think the scenario you would paint would be really walking out the door, being on your mobile, perhaps going back to a VoIP call — essentially doing all applications over broadband.

WiMax has the potential to expand the footprint that Wi-Fi would be fulfilling today [but] I'm not confident to say that will happen in next 4-5 years. We will keep a watchful eye on WiMax to see if we incorporate that in at some point.

We believe it should be made available for whatever technology can be developed to maximise the use of it, and the sooner the better. At the moment, how BT could use it remains a question mark. I don't think a WiMax network would ever go countrywide — it would probably be urban.

It's too early-days. There isn't a strong case for putting WiMax out for mobility purposes in rural areas, although there could be, in certain countries like Pakistan, a case for using it for low-speed broadband. We're going to 8 megabits per second now — a WiMax network can't provide that level of richness in terms of connectivity.

Finally, you've been rumoured to be in talks with the "Wi-Fi community" Fon, regarding the creation of public hotspots in residential and commercial areas, using your hubs. Is this the case?
We have talked to them. We are interested in how we might benefit from extending our footprint in terms of our relationship with them. What form that relationship would take, I cannot communicate at the moment.

It could be a roaming model like with any other company that's got a footprint of hotspots. We need to look at it in the context of what services we want to provide to BT customers, and how we make sure you can connect in more places.