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Forging a new identity: IT underpins Openreach’s independence

Openreach chief technology and information officer Mark Lam discusses how IT is helping to forge a new and distinct identity for the network infrastructure business as it leaves the wider BT Group

As the legal split of national network infrastructure company Openreach from its parent BT progresses at pace, much is changing, and much has already been said about some of the more obvious changes – the logos and letterheads have been swapped out, the vans are being resprayed, new stock photographs have been commissioned and shot.

But what is not so widely talked about is the work taking place to split Openreach’s internal IT systems from those of the wider BT Group, a vital piece of work in establishing Openreach’s true independence. This job now falls under the remit of Mark Lam, Openreach’s chief technology and information officer.

Arriving in the UK in the 1990s from his native Singapore, Lam began his career in the world of startups, and lived through the dotcom crash at the turn of the century – indeed, he experienced it first-hand when the software house he was working for at the time fell victim to the bubble.

Riding out those turbulent few months was a challenging experience, says Lam, but one that, looking back, he believes taught him his first valuable lesson in business. “No matter how rosy things look, never take anything for granted, never be complacent. It has created in me a very prudent attitude,” he tells Computer Weekly.

Over the intervening years, Lam has spent time at various blue chips, mostly in the telecoms sector, including stints at mobile operator T-Mobile (now half of EE) and Carphone Warehouse, where he helped set up the firm’s local loop unbundling (LLU) programme for ADSL broadband services. For a while in the mid-2000s, Carphone Warehouse was the UK’s third-largest provider of consumer broadband through the now-defunct AOL UK brand.

“With telcos, as an IT professional, I found they understand the value of IT much more, and invest heavily in it,” he says.

Now steeped in the world of broadband, Lam eventually found a home at BT, and it is with BT that he has had his longest association. In 2015, he moved across into the Openreach business with the dual responsibility of designing and running Openreach’s core product, the access network that most UK broadband services ultimately transit, and running the business’ internal IT.

This includes everything from the heavy-duty back-end equipment that operates, monitors and activates the Openreach network, to financial systems and other generalised business processes, and the tools that enable the organisation’s large force of field engineers to work.

IT to guarantee independence

In the few months since the split was made official, things at Openreach are starting to feel very different, says Lam, with a new executive team established to run the business, and governance procedures strengthened.

When it comes to IT, it was decided early on to strengthen Openreach’s own IT function so that it could execute with more accountability.

“Prior to the independence agreement, the vast majority of our technical design, development and execution was undertaken by a division within BT called TSO [technology, services and operations],” says Lam.

“We transferred a number of resources over into Openreach under my unit, primarily network design and IT design resources.

“What is key now is that we are in control of our own destiny, can articulate and plan our own strategy, and govern how we execute against those plans using a set of partners – the biggest of which is still BT TSO, but we are starting to use others to make sure we get an optimal mix in the best interests of Openreach and our customers.”

“What is key now is that we are in control of our own destiny”

Mark Lam, Openreach

At the same time, Lam is working on recalibrating Openreach’s dealings with BT TSO to build more of a customer-supplier type of relationship, a change he describes as quite profound for the organisation. This is at least in part because of how Openreach is perceived among its communication services provider (CSP) customers.

Before the split, one of the most frequently voiced complaints was that because Openreach was effectively under the control of the BT Group, BT’s consumer broadband retail business received special treatment from it, and Openreach made network investment decisions to favour its parent’s commercial interests over those of its parent’s CSP competitors.

In Lam’s view, these accusations were unfounded, and it is important to be clear that both BT and Openreach had indeed made commitments not to behave in such a way (although whether or not they did each other favours behind closed doors will probably always be a point of contention). However, Lam acknowledges that the perception of Openreach’s relationship with BT as being rather too cosy certainly dictated CSP behaviour in the market.

But now that legal separation is throwing up a more watertight barrier between BT and Openreach, Lam is trying to build stronger, bilateral relationships with the IT departments of customer CSPs.

“The dialogue is more open and transparent and I think we are now starting to build more trust with the CSP community,” he says. “We are very keen to demonstrate to industry and customers that we are different and that we can offer renewed and strengthened relationships.”

IT to face the full-fibre future

One thing that will not change following the separation of BT and Openreach will be the organisation’s commitment to accelerate the build-out of an ultrafast broadband platform using a mix of fibre-based technology, including more Gfast and fibre to the premises (FTTP).

Lam says there are a number of ways in which technology plays a role in building an ultrafast broadband network around research and innovation at the BT-run Adastral Park facility in Suffolk, notably on the hardware needed to upgrade standard fibre cabinets to Gfast, but also on enhancements to FTTP technology. A partnership with Huawei has already produced an FTTP passive optical network (Pon) capable of boosting speeds by 40 times, although this is still a few years from productisation.

Beyond innovation and evolving broadband standards, technology plays a major part in making the engineering and building of fibre networks easier in both urban and rural areas.

One recent project explored the use of drones, initially to fly equipment to engineers working on remote Scottish islands to save them having to catch a ferry back to the mainland if they didn’t have the right kit in the van. However, drones have now found a new application within Openreach – flying fibre cables across an otherwise impassable river in a remote part of Wales.

But it is in managing the national network roll-out that IT has its biggest role. “To build out FTTP, we first have to plan a network, and traditionally this is planned behind someone’s desk in an office before we dispatch a surveyor or any engineers,” says Lam.

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“For complex builds, that can take up to 50 man-hours, so we worked with our innovation team and commissioned some machine learning algorithms that, based on the inputs of what we know is available in our inventory and a number of other parameters, can calculate and produce an optimal network plan.

“This can be done in seconds, and we have industrialised that now, so we can get it out in the field as quickly as possible. I think it’s a great example of where innovation in IT and agile technology can speed up network deployment.”

Ultimately, the idea is for Openreach’s IT estate to undergo a significant evolution to be more adaptive to account for the demands people now make of their broadband service. Until now, the network has been run on a number of big, heavy systems designed to be safe and reliable, but Openreach is now working on a set of microservices that will allow the network to adapt to changing customer needs while protecting the core.

“People rightly see broadband as a basic human right,” he says. “We need to support that. They need a quality, always-on product, and crucially, in trading with us, they expect a slick service, quick provisioning, quick fixes for problems.”

Out in the field, Lam is working on devolving more power to Openreach’s engineering workforce, which has already been equipped with iPhones and Openreach business applications to enable them to tap into central systems. This is now set to go further, and engineers will soon be empowered to manage and control their own jobs, while the introduction of an internal enterprise social media platform will help them work in groups, and enable young recruits to learn from the old hands.

“We recruited north of 1,500 engineers this year, and probably a similar number next year,” says Lam. “They will best learn from other engineers, so we want to create an internal social environment where people can share that expertise. Senior engineers are keen to impart wisdom, but they don’t often meet one another.”

Diversity in recruitment

Moves are also afoot at Openreach to improve the gender balance in its field engineering operations. “A significant minority of our engineers are women, but we need to do more,” says Lam. “Our graduate intake this year was split 50:50, but at the field engineering and apprenticeship level, we are just not getting the numbers we would like yet.”

Before Openreach’s departure from the BT fold, Lam helped lead on BT’s internal women in technology programme, and has become a keen advocate of using social media for recruitment in order to target a broader, especially female, audience.

Addressing this challenge will require a little more fine-tuning of Openreach’s public image. What is the first thing that comes to mind when the average consumer thinks about an Openreach engineer? Probably a middle-aged man driving around in a Ford transit. Popular perception holds that field engineering is not a woman-friendly career option, but obviously there is no reason why this should be the case, says Lam, and he has already started work on changing things.

“We have started a recruitment campaign in London for engineers,” he says. “Traditionally, we would advertise in the papers, but this time we’ve gone straight to social media and we can already see a different gender balance responding.”

By Lam’s own admission, for a number of years he largely ignored the topic of diversity – whether gender, race or sexual orientation – in the industry because, as a member of an ethnic minority in the UK, he did not want his own career to be defined by his Singaporean roots.

“I knew that if I progressed, it was on the merits of my capabilities and hard work,” he says. “But diversity is something I’ve been reflecting on, and I’ve come to acknowledge the significant business benefit a diverse team brings. I am also conscious that role modelling of diversity needs to happen from the top. I’ve been silent, and I don’t want to be any more.”

Read more on Telecoms networks and broadband communications

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