Technology changes to improve the UK’s digital infrastructure
By Howard Watson, Chief Security and Networks Officer, BT Group
“For those of you watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green”
Digital technology never stands still but to access its transformative benefits depends on two essential criteria; the quality of your network and the type of device you use.
BT Group is building networks like fury. Through Openreach, our full fibre connections have now passed 10million homes, 40% of the way to the 25 million we’ve pledged to deliver. And EE, our leading mobile network, now has a 4G signal capable of connecting over 99% of all households, while also covering nearly nine out of every 10 square miles of the UK.
But as demonstrated by Ted Lowe’s infamous snooker commentary, the modern networks we build are only as good as the medium through which they are accessed.
Tomorrow, the BBC will stream the Coronation of King Charles III in glorious 4K definition. But for a few thousand households yet to upgrade their black and white TV, the pictures will look little different to seventy years ago, when the BBC beamed grainy footage of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II to the nation.
That’s no criticism. It’s an illustration that better experiences sometimes require customer action.
Over the next few years, BT Group is involved in a number of major network upgrade programmes. But there are two in particular that will support more people to access the benefits that modern networks can deliver.
The first is the industry and nationwide shift from analogue to digital landlines. The home phone as we know it isn’t disappearing, but it is changing. The power-hungry, end-of-service analogue technology, originally rolled-out in the 20th century, is getting a future-proof, digital replacement, supported by full fibre networks capable of delivering the growing connectivity needs of UK consumers and the broader economy for the next century.
We’ve written extensively about our digital home phone service, Digital Voice. Later this year we will invite customers to switch on a region-by-region basis, focusing first on customers who have already full fibre broadband, as the most ready to make the switch.
The second is the closure of our 3G network. 3G is over twenty years old, launching the same year that Concorde was finally grounded and predating services like Facebook and YouTube. Recognising this, the UK Government set all operators a deadline to retire 3G technology over the coming years. At EE, we’ve announced we’ll be shutting the network down in early 2024.
Smartphones - and the content viewed on them – have revolutionised how the internet is used and as a result, 3G has already been largely abandoned by customers. It carries fewer calls every passing day and accounts for less than 0.7% of our customers’ data usage. But despite the low volumes of traffic it delivers, it consumes up to a third of the energy we use to power our entire mobile access network. Compare that to 4G and 5G; mobile networks that reach further, respond quicker, offer a more secure and reliable connection for customers, and are up to 10 times more efficient. In short, 3G can’t keep up.
Together, these programmes are of significant value to customers to the UK. What’s more, they are complementary. By moving to Digital Voice, customers will have access to more secure technology. And by being on 4G with a more modern handset, they will have access to one of the largest voice networks in the UK, as well as being able to experience improved data services.
We know any change can feel daunting and we’re taking our responsibility seriously to make sure customers understand the reasons for the changes and the choices they have.
These changes aren’t about selling more expensive packages. Digital connectivity is one of those rare things in the UK – a service which can give you more for your money year on year. By comparison, if a customer wanted to upgrade their TV license from black and white to colour, their bill would treble. In mobile, customers will find that moving from 3G to 4G or 5G will see far greater value for money and for some, their monthly bill will actually decrease.
Instead, this digital transformation is about ensuring Britain has a digital infrastructure to be proud of. Modern technologies have fundamentally changed the way we live, work and play and it’s vital that digital leaders like BT Group continue to invest in high quality, reliable connections run over environmentally sustainable technologies. To deliver greater reliability, reach and performance for our customers means we must also recognise when it’s time to retire the older stuff.
We will use the time ahead to work closely with customers to ensure no one is left behind.