FAQ: BT's 21st Century Network

BT is spending £10bn on upgrading its nationwide telecoms network to IP. Where is all this cash going, and what will it mean for businesses?

As telecoms companies realise the potential of Internet Protocol (IP), they are creating so-called next-generation networks, to harness the potential of new voice, data and video applications. There are also some significant cost savings expected, with the move to a more efficient system estimated at around £1bn per year in BT's case. BT's next-generation network — called 21st Century Network — is by far the most high-profile next-generation network in the UK, but it has also attracted the most criticism

What is a 21st Century Network?
21st Century Network (21CN) is BT terminology for its nationwide network upgrade to what is called a "next-generation network" or NGN. NGNs are carrier networks that run IP end-to-end, which makes them much more efficient and means they can run a wider variety of applications on a much simpler infrastructure.

Is anyone else completing an NGN?
Most carriers — including Cable & Wireless, Thus and Easynet — have completed, or are completing, an NGN. What makes BT's NGN unique is its scale.

How big is BT's next-generation network?
Huge — 21CN will have to reach every home and business in the UK. It is forecast to cost £10bn to implement. But because it is fully IP, it should cost £1bn per year less to run that the 16 networks that preceded it.

How can 16 networks be transformed into one?
That's the power of IP. Whereas traditional services, such as the public-switched telephone network (PSTN), ISDN and frame relay, for example, each required a separate set of infrastructure, all IP applications will be able to run over the same converged NGN.

So has BT's 21CN gone smoothly?
Far from it, as BT is starting to admit. 21CN is now scheduled to overrun by at least a year, with a re-arranged completion date of 2011. Maybe that's not surprising — BT said last month that the project should have taken 10 years to complete, and even with the delay it's aiming for seven.

Is BT building this network on its own?
No — the telco has enlisted eight headline suppliers for the infrastructure: Fujitsu, Huawei, Alcatel, Cisco, Siemens, Lucent, Ciena and Ericsson.

Wasn't Marconi involved?
Yes it was, and it installed much of the initial equipment in the network. Then, a certain amount of wool-pulling over the eyes happened before Marconi was ejected unceremoniously from proceedings. Those secretive discussions meant the end of Marconi as we knew it.

Are the project delays due to the infrastructure?
The answer to that is either a) no, or b) only BT can say. BT prefers a). But a little birdie who gave us answer b) did tell us that the Cisco kit is causing problems for the telco.

So, assuming everything works, what will 21CN do for my business?
It should make communications between offices a lot simpler, without the need for current protocol translations. BT also plans to give businesses a self-service portal, so they can buy or change services and bandwidth in real-time. And because the network is all-IP, services could become considerably cheaper. But of course pricing is largely in BT's court.

Hasn't the regulator weighed in to regulate 21CN yet?
No, because no significant rollout has yet been completed, Ofcom is keeping its distance. It's currently discussing regulation with interested parties.

As a large corporate, I'm an interested party. How do I get involved?
The bad news is, BT doesn't rate the views of corporates as highly as it does service providers, and it doesn't have a formal mechanism for recognising those views. Your best bet is to speak to a representative body such as the British Computer Society, National Computing Centre or the Communications Management Association.

Who else is reliant on 21CN?
Most noticeably other service providers. They will have to connect with the network in order to supply next-generation services themselves. Full interconnect is still a long way off. And BT is also waiting for 21CN in order to roll out superfast broadband, known as ADSL2+. So while Easynet and Be currently offer 24Mbps broadband, BT's customers will still have to wait up to five years.

So when am I likely to be connected to 21CN?
It depends on where in the country you live. Small parts of Cardiff are already connected. Most homes and businesses will be connected between 2007 and 2009. But if you live and work in Scotland, you'll most likely have to wait until 2011.


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