The bright potential future for BT

I left BT in 2007 after 22 years. (For my US readers, BT is Britain’s version of AT&T). Like most employees of most companies, I had a few gripes over the years, but overall, BT was a good company to work for – humane to its staff, while trying to do a good job for both shareholders and customers in a difficult political climate, with pretty sound ethics. It wasn’t perfect, but what company is?

I currently have BT broadband problems, as you do, again, but I still like BT and still keep all my shares, hoping one day they might get back up to what I paid for them. BT holds a unique place in my investments, being the only one I have ever lost money on (well, if I actually sold my shares now I’d lose). But it is a good company, and entirely fixable. My perhaps unjustifiably high regard for the company in spite of any evidence to the contrary doesn’t extend to the board. BT has a lot of excellent and devoted staff, and they are the reason for its survival, I would say very much in spite of it a long history of rubbish CEOs, including Livingstone. (I would exclude Vallance from my rubbish CEO list, I thought he actually did a pretty good job in the circumstances he faced.) As an engineer who could see the vast potential profits from relatively small investments that were open to a decent sized IT company, they all seemed incompetent to me, determined to ignore those potential markets and investing stupidly in others but focusing mainly on cost cutting as the only tool they could really understand. I don’t think any BT CEO since 1985 has deserved their grade or pay. BT gives its staff appraisals, and if I was his boss, I’d have given Livingstone 3 out of 10. At least now he’s in government, he will just be one incompetent among many so he will blend in just fine.

I won’t bother with the details of mistakes made. They are history. The future could still be bright if the new CEO is any good. Sadly, I don’t know Patterson. He joined the board after I left and I had no contact with him beforehand so I know nothing about him. I wish him the very best of success, for everyone’s sakes and if he does well, I’ll very happily sing his praises.

(I know it’s easy to say I could have done a far better job than most BT CEOs. I am certain that I could, and I certainly wouldn’t have made most of the huge errors that I saw, but anyone could say that and of course it is unprovable , and in any case,  I knew lots of other employees that would still have done much better than me. I guess it is a bit like US presidents. With 300 million people to pick from, you really have to wonder how the hell some of them ever got elected.)

So, what should BT do now? I declare my financial interests. I have a few shares, and one day if I am still alive they’ll give me a pension, and I remain a customer, so I do really want them to flourish, but otherwise I have had no financial exchanges with BT since I left in 2007.

A lot of the potential for BT has existed for a long time, and it is proof of previous CEO incompetence that it remains mostly untapped. Other areas are quite new.

There are a few valuable assets that BT makes too little use of to date. One is trust. BT has always achieved a very high trust rating from customers. Sure, they might whine about occasional lousy customer service or call centre delays, but mostly they still trust BT. Technically, customers assume their kit will work pretty reliably and they will eventually fix it with only modest annoyance when it fails. That’s better than it sounds compared to a lot of companies (Hotpoint, British Gas and O2 to name three at the very top of my most recent customer service hate list). They also trust BT on security, again an advantage not to be sniffed at. More importantly, customers trust it morally. It is quite a nice company. It pays its taxes. It has good old fashioned values and doesn’t do services that are morally questionable except where required to by law. It leans towards the customer’s side on questions of privacy v state surveillance. Again, a whole lot better on several important topical points than many big IT and web companies right now. A decent CEO would make his marketing departments do wonders with those advantages.

BT’s main physical asset is a very widespread network, much of which is fibre. But is has seriously floundered on decent speed broadband roll-out for badly miscalculated economic reasons and has ended up losing large numbers of customers onto mobile and other broadband providers. Firstly, it has to fix that by greatly accelerating its roll-out of fibre to cover the entire population within towns and suburbs. Further than that, it can plead poverty to government to extract subsidies for uneconomic roll-outs in some country areas, and fob others off with custom solutions. How close the fibre actually gets to the end customer is not important and there are many feasible architectural solutions. The data rate the customer gets is important.

The data rates it needs to provide via that fibre must be at least 50Mbit/s, which I calculated a long time ago is the latent demand of an average household today. It must be ready to increase those basic rates quickly through 100Mbit/s in 2015 into Gbits/s soon after.

It should by default provide high speed wireless from all of those homes into the nearby area. This will allow serious competition with mobile companies, especially since many customers carry tablets with only wireless LAN access. Those tablets and many smartphones rely on cloud provision for many services such as photo, video and music storage, as well as download services such as TV on demand. Decent wireless rates in the vicinity of most homes and business properties would make fairly ubiquitous broadband a reality, with none of the tiny date rate limits and poor connections offered by mobile operators. (As an aside, not doing that ages ago instead of crippling the company with the costs of unnecessary 3G licenses was one of the big errors I mentioned).

With high speed ubiquitous access, and still loads of building space to place storage and servers, BT could be a first class cloud provider (as Bonfield should have understood, coming from a computing company in the days when the cloud was still called distributed computing and computing on demand). Its engineers have understood cloud technology principles since the 80s, but it has never really invested in it properly. Now that other companies are threatening to put in their own access to their own clouds, BT is vulnerable to attack if it doesn’t quickly seize the opportunity by the throat. This may well become another missed opportunity for BT.

Another one (that CEO Heiffer should have understood, coming as he did from the finance world) is banking. BT manages to charge profitably on calls that cost just a few pence. Micro-payments is resurfacing once again as a valuable service. So far, no company has succeeded in delivering an acceptable micro-payments service but BT has the geographic coverage and technical skill to pull it off. It could go further and do proper full-service community banking. Again, a huge advantage has fallen into its lap thanks to the demise of trust in conventional banks. If any company could make community based banking work, BT could. The political climate is very favourable to get appropriate regulatory consent, society is ready and even eager, and the technology is available and proven with which to make it. Trust is the magic extra ingredient that BT has more of than other players.

Cloud financing, buying and other community based enterprises are all up-and-coming now, drawing from social and business versions of cloud thinking. Again, the core ideas go back decades. BT has been involved in their debates since over 20 years ago and holds a good hand of cards. It still could help a great deal to stimulate economic redevelopment of the UK by implementing just some of its ideas in this space. It is ironic that Livinsgtone failed to understand this enormous opportunity while he was CEO of BT, yet has now been made Minister of State for Trade and Investment. Why would anyone think he will suddenly understand now?

BT could also develop some of its many inventions made at its research labs. In many cases, small development costs are all that should be needed to generate large incomes. BT’s policy for ages has been to starve any forward looking R&D and only feed proven markets. That is no way to grow. Serious R&D investment could reap many times over in rewards. AI, convergence of IT with biotech, sponge nets, augmented reality, novel interfaces, 3D comms, digital bubbles, biomimetics and many others offer potential. Even the railways are open to attack. Conventional rail is still only equivalent to BT’s old circuit-switched lines that it used until the 1970s. A company that has been in front runners for 40 years of packet switching developments ought to be able to apply equivalent thinking to rail and road to gain rich rewards, converging time-wise as it does now with self driving cars, electrics, self organisation, high speed wireless, super-capacitor development and a host of other technologies BT understands well. Here again, rich pickings are available, and BT has one of the best positions to capitalise.

I could go on, but that is enough examples for now. BT has been offered a fresh start with a fresh CEO. If he is even a bit brave he could easily achieve things very far beyond any of his predecessors. As I said, I don’t know him so have no idea if he will be good or bad. Let’s hope he is up to the job and not just another huge disappointment.

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2 responses to “The bright potential future for BT

  1. Is BT back with the PO?
    I thought things went haywire when the
    PO sold it off.

  2. Very interesting piece Ian! I remember sitting in a meeting in London’s BT Centre in 1999 where the “Internet opportunity” for BT was being discussed and debated. I was part of the “Net Business Solutions” team in BT UK Markets that developed the corporate intranet. So “got it” I think ;-) I can’t remember who it was, but someone gave a phenomenal presentation on trust as one of BT’s strongest brand values and a major Internet opportunity. If “BT Group” had understood this and aligned the impressive technical and commercial skills of the company as a whole, they could have a business unit with a share value that dwarfs LON:BT.A.

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