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BT and EE to converge fibre broadband, 4G networks

BT’s consumer unit has launched a network convergence strategy designed to make the most of its national fibre and 4G network assets

BT’s Consumer business unit – comprising BT’s broadband business, mobile operator EE, and ISP Plusnet – has unveiled a new strategy, marrying its core fixed broadband, mobile and Wi-Fi networks to create a unified converged asset by 2022.

Speaking at an event in London, BT Consumer CEO Marc Allera said: “We made some tough choices last week as a group, but we are reinvesting in networks and services, which is what our customers want.

“Customers are using more data in more places on more devices than ever before. They need faster, more reliable networks in more places to make that happen. That’s why we need to change the face of networks in the UK.

“Convergence for us is all about bringing the best of everything we do in one place together. We’ve already brought our teams together, now we’re going to bring our networks together.”

The first technological evidence of the convergence strategy will take the form of a hybrid home broadband router, which will be made available to EE broadband customers at first. EE Hybrid Broadband will use multipath transmission control protocol (TCP) technology to bond both BT’s fixed broadband network and EE’s 4G network in a single box.

TCP itself is nothing new – it has been around for almost 40 years. However, multipath TCP is a much more recent development which works by spreading data from one TCP connection over multiple interfaces and routes, improving resiliency, adding redundancy, and improving data transmission rates or speed. It is already well in use in multiple scenarios.

For users of the new technology, this means that the end result will be a single connection combining the available speed of both networks. For example, a consumer receiving a 30Mbps broadband service (the Ofcom benchmark for superfast) and a 28.6 Mbps 4G service (an approximate UK-wide mean average for EE based on OpenSignal statistics) might receive a connection of up to 58.6Mbps.

Such a service could theoretically come into its own for users in those remaining parts of the UK that receive fixed broadband speeds of under 10Mbps, where adding a 4G connection – note that EE now claims to cover 90% of the UK population geographically – would bump up their speeds to over both the Ofcom and government definitions of superfast broadband. It will be launched to the market in 2019.

The bonded network technology is just one element of a much wider strategic realignment that is now getting underway at BT Consumer, designed to position the entire organisation as a national communications provider of choice.

“I want us to become the most personal and local company our customers deal with. We are a very big company, but I want us to feel local,” said Allera.

To this end, BT will be repatriating all its customer contact centres to the UK by 2020, and will return the BT brand to the high street for the first time in years through concessions in EE stores. It also hopes to put new, digitised customer service options in place.

BT customers will also be able to take advantage of a new converged package called BT Plus, which will bring together home broadband, BT Mobile (not EE at this time) and Wi-FI capabilities into a single plan with a single bill. Perks for consumers will include a 4G Wi-FI mini hub, built by Huawei, which will be dispatched to users as a “courtesy connection” while users wait for broadband services to be installed or repaired.

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The convergence strategy will also reach into BT’s consumer media content offerings, with Amazon Prime Video becoming available on the service later this year and Sky’s Now TV service following in 2019, while EE customers will benefit from increased access to BT Sport content and support for Google Chromecast in addition to Apple TV.

EE customers will be getting new support and set-up tools, including augmented reality (AR) assistance, a number of new features for household plans, such as data gifting and enhanced parental controls, and hybrid mobile plans which combine features from pay-as-you-go and contract plans. It is also launching supplier-agnostic support for smart home devices through partnerships with the likes of Hive, Google, Apple Homekit and Alexa.

More broadly, BT Consumer will also launch a business unit dedicated to establishing and maintaining partnerships with other innovative tech companies, with the aim of bringing their products and services to customers, and giving users the ability to control such services by, for example, making micro-payments through their mobile bills.

Paolo Pescatore, vice-president of multiplay and media at analyst group CCS Insight, said the update set a new course for the consolidated BT Consumer unit, which was created in September 2017 when EE was folded into BT Consumer, having previously been run as a standalone business unit since its acquisition.

“This growing unit is very well positioned to be a leader in the changing UK multiplay market. This is a good first step but further changes and tough decisions still await Mr Allera and his management team,” said Pescatore.

“This update provides a much needed boost to the BT Group, given the widespread negative publicity it has endured in recent months. More importantly the new structure and strategy provides better clarity on the future direction of the consumer segment which has been in limbo for some time.

“Encouragingly, Marc and his team are taking a broader role beyond mobile and individual consumers and more about household telecom requirements.

“The three distinct brands remain and for now clearly cater for specific segments. However, we reiterate our belief that at least one will be dropped in the medium to long term.”

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