Digital equity: our industry must have the courage to evolve for the better

By Marc Allera, CEO, BT Consumer

It was great to be back in person at the Enders Media and Telecoms 2022 & Beyond conference last week.

I talked about how this must be the most volatile but fascinating time I’ve seen in my 21 years in the telco industry. It's a really challenging time for anyone running a consumer business, with consumer behaviour changing faster than ever and significant numbers of people in really challenging situations right now. We know we have a responsibility to help every customer.

While costs are going up hugely on pretty much everything in every business everywhere, I believe our industry offers outstanding value relative to other sectors, consumers are getting and using loads more data on faster more reliable Fibre and 5G networks whilst telco is one of the lowest basket spends in the household and we have the lowest prices and highest competitive intensity of any country in Europe.

Our world revolves around networks and connectivity – we are at the crossroads between hardware, services, media and content. It’s a fast-changing world for our customers: the way they work, the way they watch their favourite films and TV shows, the way they keep in touch with the people they love. 

Changes in technology and market structures are happening right now, and happening at pace. The expectations of what our networks can deliver is rising all the time. Across the industry, the UK's networks have stood up to a surge of pressure from customers for whom connectivity was a lifeline during the pandemic. 

We were able to manage the demand on our network partly because we saw a lot of the data growth happen during the day thanks to remote working and home learning. But the traffic peaks – the times when our network is tested by streaming at the same time as major downloads for things like new game patches – have continued to grow.

Reaching new peaks

In December streaming of Premier League football drove another massive peak of internet traffic on our broadband network – a new high peak of 25.5Tbps. That’s about 12% higher than the previous peak we saw around the same time the year before. 

These peaks will continue to grow in frequency and size. And this requires a very different network to the ones designed today. 

This isn’t a complaint about content. We love our partnerships and services that drive a need for better connectivity - I’m not here to complain! 

But I do believe we need to change some things. It shouldn’t be assumed that networks will just ‘cope’ with these increasing peaks driven by the distribution shift in TV streaming and gaming. 

I just can’t see how this is sustainable. 

We’re having to think very hard about how we are going to be able to deliver the necessary step-change in investment that will soon be needed to handle Web 3.0, the Metaverse, explosions in online gaming, TV’s shift to all IP and other services we haven’t seen yet 

Because make no mistake, traffic growth will explode as traditional broadcast migrates across to IP. 

IP networks can step up and be the replacement – and we will. But to do so, we need to shift from ‘best efforts’ delivery – with content providers fighting it out at busy times – to guaranteed service levels, even greater reach than we see today, and with improved resilience. 

It’s not ‘a bit more of the same’. It’s a whole different ball game. And our current, one-sided economic models are not designed to manage this. So, we need some real debates about how we can drive network investment and innovation for UK consumers, and support government in delivering key policy goals. 

Closing the digital divide, future of TV and transformation of public services all depend on a bigger, more resilient digital infrastructure. 

Three questions I’ve already asked: how could we work more closely with companies whose platforms drive the increasing costs on networks? And how can we work together on more efficient delivery of content to consumers? And how can they play a bigger role in achieving the investment needed to drive these big policy goals? 

It’s not just me that’s asking. 

There are also a number of global voices calling for a change. The internet has evolved beyond all recognition since the principals of net neutrality were set and I don’t think it has all evolved as people thought it would! So those arguing nothing needs to change or evolve don’t have a strong argument in my view. 

Many more stakeholders now recognise the growing power of digital platforms; voices that realise connectivity is a shared endeavour. And voices that want to protect the fundamental rules of parity on networks. 

I believe if we want to close the digital divide, we have to look beyond that debate being framed solely around whether somebody can get online or not. 

We also have to think about the quality of their experience once they are online. Digital equity. 

We need to ensure policy makers are awake to this challenge, because the world will continue to move on at pace. We must all have the courage to evolve and change for the better, to deliver a better service for our customers. 

If we do this right, then we all have a braver, brighter future ahead – wherever you stand at the crossroads of networks, services, platforms and devices.

Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @marcallera

Photo credit: Philipp Katzenberger, Unsplash