BT Group’s Chief Architect says networks are all about people

CTO Interviews

Neil J. McRae is Chief Architect, BT Group. He joined the company in February 2011 and has responsibility for the architecture and technology in all of BT’s networks, infrastructure, IT and processes.

Long before he embarked on his career, though, and named after Neil Armstrong, McRae was drawn to technology through NASA and the Apollo programme, and recognised its potential to change people’s lives. He grew up in a rough area of Edinburgh in Scotland that featured in the movie Trainspotting.

He says, “The movie applied some artistic licence, but showed a kind of hopelessness that a lot of folks I knew felt as they had no way to escape. I wanted to do something my life and technology [has] really made that possible for me.”

He insists that improving people’s lives is at the heart of BT, and that differentiates the company from everywhere else he has worked. According to McRae, the company has found that “getting people online, and, especially vulnerable people, can really make a big difference”.

He says, “We change the world for these people. It can reconnect them with the world. My father-in-law is quite isolated, but now he has his window on the world through the Internet and Facebook, and being able to talk to his friends and family who are all over the world.

“That’s what excites me most about what we do with the network — if I can get someone, anyone, connected, no matter where they are in the world, it gives them a lifeline to make a positive difference to their own life and other people’s lives.”

McRae adds, “There’s nothing worse than when technology doesn’t deliver on its promise – that is for me is like kryptonite [the substance that was toxic to Superman]”. He acknowledges that customers do complain about services, but says BT is steadily working through issues, “making it better and better”.

Challenging in a different way

You could say McRae now works in a challenging environment: BT acquired EE in 2016, 5G is imminent, and there is an on-going drive to virtualise as well as integrate networks. Network traffic is already growing by 40% year on year, driven largely by video streaming and gaming, and looks likely to increase as FTTH rollout accelerates – Openreach, BT’s broadband unit, passed its millionth home with fibre in April – and 4G coverage expands.

McRae says, “When I joined BT, one of the first things I knew we needed to do was get back into mobile, so we rolled out some 4G small cells, which gave us a lot of confidence that we could be successful, and then boom – we went out and bought EE. We didn’t mess about with that: there were a few operators that we could have acquired, but we went for the biggest and the best one very specifically to underline our intent.”

He continues, “We brought them into the BT family, and we’ve continued to win awards and grow [the number of mobile] customers and continue to be number one.” Indeed, EE has won Rootmetrics annual Best UK Network Award for five years in a row (the last one August 2018) and won or shared the top spot in all six categories of RootMetrics’ comprehensive testing, announced in April 2019. That means EE/BT has now won the overall UK award in 11 consecutive rounds of testing, going back to when RootMetrics began UK-wide testing in the second half of 2013.

Group momentum

He says BT Sport and the EE acquisition gave the group more momentum, which the company has sustained as it faces the next challenge, “To bring those networks together, which we are [doing]. We’re really in a great place where we’re moving at pace to do that, and roll out 5G and FTTP – fibre to the premises. My colleagues in Openreach are really building that network quickly. There’s still a long way to go, but they’re doing a phenomenal job of it and bringing the power of mobile and fixed together is the next big challenge.

“When you put all those things together, in my mind, working here and being a part of this, I mean, where else would you want to be,frankly? Nowhere else has got the ‘train set’ [the range of technology] that we’ve got,” he states. “There’s nothing bigger than what we’re doing with 5G. We’re building it right now to launch later this year — it’s super exciting and we are going to change the world for people all over the UK, as we deliver better and better services.” BT is scheduled to launch 5G services in 16 of the UK’s busiest cities in 2019.

Impacts of 5G

How will 5G change BT’s operational and business models? McRae says,“On the operational side, that’s really easy — it’s automate or die; we have to automate everything. We’re going to have hundreds of millions of connected devices and you can’t do that manually. We have a big group of folks who are focused on automation.”

He adds, “That’s very much what we’re working on: building out BT and transforming BT into this digital organisation. We’re touching every part of our business. We have a programme to really crank up the handle on digital IT and analytics, and security around those things: we’ve got huge programmes to get ready to support enterprises, because 5G’s a bigger enterprise play.”

Beyond that, “It goes without saying” that for vertical and industrial applications, 5G requires “a completely different way of building a network, a different set of commercial models, a different way of thinking. At the core, it starts with a different way of working with those businesses. I genuinely believe that the hard part of 5G is not the technology. It’s the different way of working, of engaging with businesses,” McRae says.

Blanket coverage

BT is looking at how to provide blanket coverage with factories, for example, to allow a higher level of automation and flexibility, such as making factories more configurable as they will be able to dispense with miles of expensive cabling. Another area is connectivity solutions for supermarkets to improve the just-in-time supply of perishable goods to reduce food wastage, by monitoring and automated re-ordering.

Campus networks are another area, including hospitals, airports, shopping malls, universities and corporate premises. McRae says you shouldn’t need to have to download the latest Disney at home for your five-year old before taking a flight because it’s impossible to do it at the airport. He adds, “My vision is that the network is there with the best experience when you need it, where you need it”.

But it’s not just about connectivity. McRae explains, “Sticking sensors on a lorry and a locomotive might look like doing pretty much the same thing, but they work very differently with different parameters. You need to collect and analyse different information. I’ve been talking to GE, which makes trains, and there 500 plus sensors on their latest locomotive engine.

“I get quite excited about that because if I can extract all the data from those sensors, and help the customer prioritise it, it’s less likely that hundreds or thousands of people get stuck at train stations on a Friday night, because a train broke down [due to predictive maintenance enable by analysis of data from those sensors]. That goes right back to that root purpose we have in BT of making the world better for people.

“The next wave of devices, sensors and analytics will come together — we have a lot of research programs with really great algorithmic work at BT’s Applied Research that will pull those things together and give [enterprise] customers a much more valuable view than they would otherwise get.”

Game on for consumers

The enterprise market might eventually dwarf the consumer market, propelled by 5G and IoT, but consumers are definitely central to BT’s strategy too. Social [online] gaming in particular will be a huge sector

McRae, himself an enthusiastic gamer, observes that gaming is, “a very good proxy” for judging how well the network is performing. Even video has “a whole bunch of protocols that will step down the quality of the picture if there’s any network issues, whereas [for] gaming, the network has to work really well regarding latency – which is one aspect of network design – but also regarding packet loss and availability.”

This is because, unlike many applications, online gaming is all about two-way traffic, not simply pulling content down from the web. McRae says, “That’s why whenever we have had any network problems, we often found out from the gamers first.”

He adds, “What my aim personally is…to give people the feeling that when they are winning, it’s partly because they’re using BT as their network: I want everyone’s game to play better on our network than anyone else’s. And that’s what we’re trying to build in terms of our reach, for everything from our [fixed] superfast and ultra-fast broadband network, and our 4G and 5G networks.”

McRae explains, “I think that the human condition around trying to work differently is at the heart of 5G – to provide indoor coverage, blanket coverage, campus coverage, and coverage in train stations and at airports. Honestly, once we’ve got those [human aspects] things sorted out, the other issues are no brainers.

“The core technology of 5G is not the hardest thing about getting the most out of the opportunity. The hardest thing is our own attitude and our own willingness to work through some pretty tough stuff and how we work together to build solutions to problems that we might have thought are too hard to solve,” McRae concludes. “Many ask why? At BT, we ask why not?”