Rivals 'could beat BT' in the next-generation game

BT is putting a lot of muscle behind its 21st Century Network, but Marconi says BT's choice of suppliers could help smaller rivals steal a march

BT may find that it is overtaken by smaller UK rivals in its push to radically transform its UK telecommunications infrastructure into an all-IP based network, a senior executive at Marconi suggested this week.

Marconi surprisingly missed out last month when BT picked its first batch of suppliers for its 21st Century Network (21CN). From its position as a telecoms equipment provider, Marconi has seen that some of the UK's 'second-tier' operators are actively investigating similar moves to BT and believes they could move faster, according to Andy Evans, Marconi's chief technical and information officer.

"We’re seeing a lot of new interest in next generation networks from everyone in the UK," Evans said. "Everyone always assumed that BT would lead the charge and everyone else would follow, but could others get there first?"

Marconi sells a product called the SoftSwitch, which it says can help telcos replace legacy PSTN networks and offer applications such as real-time video calls and Internet telephony. BT had been expected to use SoftSwitch to handle the 'network intelligence' in 21CN, but instead it chose a similar product from Ericsson, even though it had previously field-tested Marconi's SoftSwitch.

Evans claimed that BT took its decision purely on price, rather than technical considerations, and suggested that BT's choice of 21CN suppliers gives its rivals the opportunity to steal a march.

"It's a challenge to keep 21CN on track…given the risk the timetable is under, as the softswitch BT has chosen isn't one they've used before," said Evans.

With 21CN, BT plans to replace a clutch of legacy networks with a single, IP-based one. It is aiming to start moving customers onto IP in 2006, and to switch off its circuit-switched voice network by 2010. Some industry experts doubt that this timetable is achievable. Evans' view is that, even if BT does pull it off, it could find that a smaller UK rival -- perhaps Cable&Wireless (C&W) -- has moved to IP first.

"BT has a multiyear plan [to build 21CN]. If you can do it now, you may have a window of a couple of years to do your network," said Evans.

One UK analyst said privately that Evans' argument sounded credible. BT, though, rejects the suggestion that by choosing Ericsson over Marconi it has put its 21CN plans at risk.

"We're very happy with our choice. We've been using Ericsson software for years," said a BT spokeswoman.

Moving to IP will allow BT to save money on operational expenses, and offer more innovative services. While none of its UK rivals have a comparably large network, several already provide serious competition in the business market.

C&W looks as likely a candidate as any to race BT in the push for IP. It has already said it is spending £190m to build an all-IP network similar to but smaller than 21CN.

Last month C&W announced it had chosen Marconi to supply a 'multiservice provisioning platform' -- effectively the same kind of network intelligence for which BT selected Ericsson over Marconi.

A C&W spokesman declined to comment for this story, explaining that the telco is still negotiating with suppliers for its own next-generation network.