BT’s 21CN explained

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Spending £10bn ($18bn) over the next five years to save an estimated £1bn in year on year operating costs, UK carrier BT is transforming its core network from the old circuit-switched, narrow band technology to modern IP (Internet Protocol), broadband transmission.

The anticipated savings are a direct result of the lower maintenance, operating and running costs associated with collapsing the current 16 separate service specific networks into one multi-service infrastructure.

BT trumpets its 21CN (21st Century Network), as a path-breaking project in the sector - a claim challenged in some quarters, not least by AT&T - and there is no question that rivals with similar plans in the pipeline are watching with interest.

21CN, which involves BT overhauling the core of its network while leaving the fibre and copper access networks in place, is a huge undertaking and schedules are very tight: the plan is to start retiring the old networks by the end of the first quarter next year and begin the mass migration of customers. The net result is that BT will become more competitive.

Its new network will make it more efficient, quicker to respond to market demand and more flexible. It claims it will be much easier to launch multimedia, converged services and that customers will have more control over their account management and greater flexibility in the way they interact with BT and its network.

Unsurprisingly 21CN has had and will continue to have a major effect on the global equipment industry which in recent years has been starved of investment by operators.

The list of preferred suppliers includes some of the world’s biggest manufacturers most of which regularly work with BT. The experience gained and resulting economies of scale will inevitably stimulate the market making similar projects easier. As a showcase project, 21CN will be invaluable for winning future contracts.

Highlighting its importance, the effect of not making the short list was dramatically illustrated by falling investor confidence in Marconi, whose shares plummeted in the days following its exclusion.

Insisting on open standards and a multi-vendor environment, BT negotiated hard to get the best technical specifications at the best prices. Rather than selecting one equipment manufacturer for each of the five critical sections (access; metro; core; i-nodes and transmissions), at least two primary suppliers were chosen for all but network intelligence where Ericsson is currently the only provider.

The difficulty lies less in the products and technologies which equipment suppliers have been developing and testing for several years but more in bringing them together in ways not previously seen. Manufacturers are expected to work as a team to guarantee interoperability and product compatibility throughout one, seamless IP network.

Interestingly BT published the end-to-end network architecture at the tender stage: ‘Suppliers were given the whole picture and could therefore see where they could place their services/technology into the architecture,’ explains Matt Bross, group chief technology officer at BT. ‘We are building this with suppliers who will have a big opportunity to innovate. How things are put together is as important as what is put in.’

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