Jane Wakefield: I am the network

This revelation came to me on a trip with BT and a nice cup of tea

When BT invited me to visit a large shed in a remote part of Suffolk on a rainy Friday all kinds of Reservoir Dogs images flashed through my mind. After all, I have not been particularly nice to BT over the years and they would almost be justified in tying me to a chair and leaving me there to teach me a lesson.

As it turned out, BT didn't appear to have any Mafia-style connections or harbour any grudges against me and on my arrival merely offered me a nice cup of tea. I was at its famous Martlesham Heath research lab, formerly an RAF airbase and now attempting to become a fashionable technology park at one end of the so-called Silicon Fen, an optimistic description of the high-tech corridor running between Cambridge and Ipswich. The reality is that it has a long way to go before it comes close to its big brother in California. For one thing it has to find a way to get rid of the rain.

Conspiracy theorists claim Martlesham Heath is awash with weird and wonderful technical innovations. It is, they say, where BT is plotting world domination and cloning robot cows. If there was secret stuff going on at Martlesham it was happening in rooms we weren't taken to on Friday. The strangest thing I saw was a woman standing in a room covered in eggboxes. However we weren't exactly given the chance to wander and our guides were suspiciously keen to keep an eye on us. One veteran hack claims he once escaped from a similar tour to be told in no uncertain terms by a disembodied voice to return immediately to the safety of his BT guides.

BT is keen to turn Martlesham into a world-beating technology park. To this end it has renamed itself Adastral Park (taken from the RAF latin logo -- Per Ardua Ad Astra meaning for all those without a classical education "through toil to the stars"). It has just announced that University College London will send 50 of its top geeks to live in one of the sheds it is busy building, where they will discover cool things about networks.

We were shown around the building they will work from -- a kind of spod pod -- which unfortunately was still in the process of being finished. It is not the prettiest of places. In fact it is dominated by a large tower which is surrounded by Sixties concrete monstrosities and looks like a hybrid between a flower power university campus and a civil service gulag. It is, we were promised as we waded across mud, going to be landscaped. I suggested a life-sized bust of Sir Peter Bonfield in the centre might be rather nice but judging by the loud silence that followed others did not agree.

One of the Sixties monstrosities is home to BT's corporate incubator Brightstar, set up to stop some of the bleeding the telco has felt as its brightest engineers left for startups. Now BT is trying to keep it in the family, nurturing its engineers and inviting them to come sit on brightly coloured sofas and eat jellybabies and pizza on Friday afternoon and talk about their latest plans for optical switching or whatever.

The best ideas are turned into startups (only one in every ten makes it) and Brightstar has now launched three companies, with a further eleven in the incubator stage. It was not, however, enough to encourage Martlesham's most famous export, technologist Peter Cochrane, to stay. He has gone off to start up his own incubator.

The highlight of the tour and the thing I was most looking forward to was a chance to glimpse some of the research projects that BT is currently working on. The afternoon tour showed us some of the technological developments that BT is most proud of, including a medal for finding a way to measure crosstalk on ADSL networks. In its VDSL lab, we were shown the grown-up version of ADSL (Very High Rate DSL).

VDSL -- despite its unfortunate first two letters -- looks pretty cool and will be ideal for any family that has become obsessed with screens and gadgets. It allows speeds of up to 14Mb/s dowload and 3Mb/s upload, which is enough for multiple PCs and TV channels too.

But the jewel in BT's research crown has to be its work on parasitic networks. Little green square fleas jingling about on a cyber cityscape will, we were told, be the radical network of tomorrow, changing forever the boring old rules of networking. The squares represent people, cars, lamp posts, desks and all manner of other objects. All of these will sometime soon contain a wireless device or some kind. As well as being our communication devices these gadgets will also act as network paths for all the other wireless widgets in the world.

Signals will bounce from device to device, searching for the next host. Because there will be so many wireless widgets being carried around and embedded into fixed objects around us, the signal will always find another host to bounce to and it won't take long for the signal to beat a virtual path to its destination unaided by any type of conventional network. Of course the grown up network will still be needed for national and international coverage but the green fleas will work jolly well on a local scale.

For those that see the Underground as an oasis of calm, a place to escape from the tuneless hum of the mobile phone -- beware. This green flea network will be ideal for bringing a signal to tube stations.

The network is going all philosophical on us. Just as we were getting used to the idea that fat pipes under the ocean carry the Internet from continent to continent, now we have to get our heads round the fact that the future of the network will be that there is no network. The network will be personal -- I am the network.

I think I shall enjoy being the network. I have been watching BT mess up its network responsibilities for the last decade or so and I promise I will take better care of it. Investors though, baying as they are for Sir Peter's blood, will be frowning down to their ankles to hear that BT is promoting the fact that its core business is becoming old-fashioned and will eventually become unnecessary.

It does show that BT is embracing change, but I would still dispute Sir Peter's oft-stated mantra that the telco is radical. It will take a little bit more than green fleas to convince me that BT is really diving headlong into the 21st century but at least its research rooms in Martlesham show that it is thinking about the future. And they do make a very nice cup of tea.

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