The United Kingdom is certainly an informative society. There are placards everywhere saying that pubs are fully licensed to sell spirits, that technicians at computer repair shops are certified, that London’s West End theaters are registered charities. A notice at a bus stop reads, ”We’re sorry that the timetable you require is not displayed here at the present time.” On the London Underground, I recently heard this frightening but helpful announcement over the public-address system: “Be advised you cannot transfer to the Northern Line at Bank station, because of a passenger caught underneath a train. You would be advised to transfer to the Northern line here.”
The UK is certainly also a leading member of the information society, but for some years it was a laggard in broadband. As late as 1999, all but 1 percent of the nation’s homes accessed the Internet at dial-up speeds. “We were in danger of becoming the big, fat, dumb, cheap pipe company,” says Matt Bross, chief technical officer of BT Group, in London, which was formerly the national carrier British Telecom and is still the overwhelmingly dominant provider of the “pipes” through which the country’s phone calls and data flow.
By March 2006, though, 19 percent of UK residents were on broadband, a larger fraction than the United States can boast. Broadband is available to essentially everyone, something the United States and most other countries can’t claim. In September, high-speed access came to tiny Foula, population 40, the westernmost of the Shetland Islands and the last telephone exchange in Scotland to be connected to the Internet.
Now the UK is getting a complete telecommunications makeover, from Foula to Cornwall and from the network’s core to its edges, vaulting it ahead of every country on the planet, even data-obsessed South Korea. In November, BT began the Herculean task of replacing its existing telephone network with one based entirely on the Internet Protocol. When the £10 billion network project is completed, there will be no technical difference in the UK between the telephone system and the Internet, though they will be distinct networks for security, quality-of-service, and billing reasons. The BT initiative, which the company calls the 21st Century Network (or 21CN), will give the country a phone system that will be at once the simplest and most modern imaginable.
But that’s just the beginning. Under the hood of the network, so to speak—in its central offices and exchanges, its metropolitan aggregation points, and its core routers and switches—BT plans to shut down all 16 of its legacy networks by 2012, replacing them with a single network to serve the entire country, including its 22.5 million households. It will be a single global network, in fact, because BT has facilities in 170 countries. The 16 networks include X.25, which was the hot new thing in data-exchange protocols in the 1980s, and asynchronous transfer mode (ATM), the multimedia data protocol of choice in the 1990s, which, when used for digitized voice traffic, fashioned point-to-point virtual circuits—yet another capability the new network will have to re-create.
Although the upgrade will not create the fastest IP-based network around, it will be the most comprehensive one. No large incumbent carrier in the world—not in South Korea, not in the United States, not in Japan—has so much as a concrete plan for a complete conversion of its phone network to IP, even though all of them would surely acknowledge that such a transformation is inevitable.
Creating one network into which all the others have been melded is a monumental undertaking, because at BT, as elsewhere, the different networks have their own equipment, protocols, software, billing systems, and staff.
The reward for such a simplification is greater speed—speed in expanding the network and continuing to improve it, in repairing faults, and in training employees. It also promises savings. Since 2000, BT has been reducing the aggregate price of its services by an amount equal to £0.5 billion per year—almost US $1 billion at current exchange rates. According to Paul Reynolds, CEO of BT Wholesale, the unit of the company responsible for 21CN, the transformation has to recoup all that money for the company, as well as pay for itself.
No £10 billion corporate makeover is without risk. After extensive modeling, testing, and field trials, BT has started to unplug the traditional telco switches in the first areas to be served by the new IP equipment. In the event of an embarrassing failure, BT could revert to the old hardware, which remains in place. So far, the backup hasn’t been needed. On 28 November, the first customers on the new network made what to them were ordinary phone calls—mostly unaware of any changes to the system.
If you were going to roll out your 21st-century network in stages, where would you begin? How about a proud, industrious, well-educated region of the UK that has fallen on hard times? That would be South Wales. For a century it was the coal capital of Britain and, at least briefly, of the world. At the height of its productivity, in 1913, a quarter of a million coal workers produced so much coal that more than 10 million metric tons were exported, amounting to one-third of the world’s coal exports that year, according to one source.
The mines are closed now, and the scars of their heyday—the slag heaps and stripped hillsides—are almost entirely covered by newly planted fields of grass or forests of oak, birch, and hawthorn. But the hard-working, highly literate Welsh people remain, making South Wales a good test bed of homes, light industry, and government offices. The telecommunications needs of 350 000 households are handled through three supersize central-exchange offices in Newport, Swansea, and Cardiff, the capital of Wales.
The three superexchanges—dubbed ”metro nodes” in the new network—rule over six other exchanges. The nine of them, in turn, move phone calls and data in and out of 70 local central offices. Today, the copper lines between individual homes and those central offices carry two different services—traditional telephony and broadband in the form of digital subscriber lines, or DSLs. If a household uses both services, its copper line terminates in the central office at a splitter. Voice telephony goes through one side of the splitter to a mainframe-like computer known as a circuit switch—a bulky digital automaton that, in the 1970s, replaced the helpful telephone operators of old, who used to complete the circuit for a call by pushing a plug into a jack on a switchboard. Data traffic goes through the other side of the splitter to a device known as a DSL access multiplexer, or DSLAM.