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BT used to manage landlines. But that was decades ago. Now, it juggles broadband access, enterprise comms and even televised sport. Next up, the internet of things. BT’s Clive Selley describes the challenges ahead…

Clive Selly BT Internet of ThingsAs CIO for BT, Clive Selley has one of the biggest information leadership gigs in UK telecoms. “We have 90,000 employees in a global company, two-thirds of them in the UK,” he says. “We are fundamentally a network company, with a presence in 170 countries.”

Until the 1980s, BT was the UK’s nationalized telecoms provider. That all changed the company was sold off. Since then it has been through many guises, and today is making great strides as a broadband provider and sports broadcaster.

Throughout every shift, BT’s network backbone has been the bedrock of the business. And this backbone is being improved all the time. BT can now process billions of messages from millions of pieces of our network electronics in near real time – something that would not have been possible 5 years ago.

This has changed the way the systems are maintained. Essentially, Selley and his team can now use data make predictions about future events. “Today we are predicting when parts of the network will fail, rather than merely understanding after the event why the network failed, he says.

“Now we have the ability to move from networks that tell you when they are broken to networks that tell you how they are performing. And from that we can figure out from the signature when they are likely to fail in the future.”

Looking for clues

This prevention rather than cure approach is obviously better for the network’s health, but it also helps counter the ever increasing threat of cyber-attacks. BT has huge amounts of data on its staff, customers, networks, services and platforms, so security is paramount.

Selley explains: “The application of big data is defending BT. We’ve put a lot of effort into developing a big data analytics tool that majors on visualization – so we have the ability to look across the network for intrusion or anomalies in terms of traffic patterns. This might give us a clue to where we are being attacked.”

While being mindful of external threats, Selley is also aware of the fact that BT’s own staff are also changing the way they interact with the organization. Indeed, the company recently issued engineers with smartphones loaded with BT apps to let them interact better the back-end systems, and thereby test services.

It’s just part of a modernizing process that embraces training and self-education too. Selley says: “We have put a lot of effort into building accredited learning pathways, which are online learning courses for our people so they can stay abreast of technology. We are now investing in MOOCs [massive open online courses], so I’m very pleased that my people can access course material from MIT, Stanford and world-leading universities.”

The sporting challenge

Needless to say, it’s not just staff who are changing the way they interact with BT. Same goes for customers. Pretty obvious when so much of your business is broadband provision. But the truth is, BT has suffered from complaints about its customer service. A 2013 Which? report said it was the telecom operator most complained about by customers.

Selley’s response is that BT continues to invest in the network, whether it’s the roll-out of fiber-based broadband or more wifi spots. Indeed, he is confident that fiber will be a “game changer” for BT and its customers.

A speedier and more reliable network is critical now that BT is also a broadcaster. In 2013, BT began competing against pay TV giant BSkyB in the competition to win sports viewers’ lucrative subscription revenues. It launched BT Sport and then won the auction for the exclusive right to televise UEFA Champions League and Europe League matches for three seasons from 2015 for £897m.

Selley said BT had been intent on launching a TV channel because of the trend for consumers to pay for broadband, phone and TV in a single ‘triple-play’ deal. The excitement was tempered by the fact that Selley and his team had just one year and one month to get the network ready for the start of the 2013/14 football season. He says: “When you spend £1bn on football rights, it really motivates your department!”

The changing nature of customer interaction was illustrated by the fact that 200,000 watched the first Manchester United match on an iPad or Android device. And interestingly, the team found out about technical issues through social media channels before any of their own systems flagged a problem.

The Internet of Things is next

While triple play to the household is the big consumer opportunity for BT, the internet of things is clearly the new direction for enterprise.

“The next thing for me is leveraging a set of mobile spectrum assets we acquired in 2013,” he says of the 4G licenses that BT won in the UK. “The customer base in the UK is no longer 60 million people, it is many millions of things, devices, cars, fridges, pot plants, whatever. The internet of things will create a mushrooming of data traffic, so the future is going to be very interesting.”

BT is already developing the internet of things for the health sector, where it’s looking at self-monitoring products for patients. Selley says: “Telecare and telehealth – the ability to serve patients in their own homes, and to monitor patients in their homes rather than in a hospital – will be absolutely transformational.”

The firm is also working with pharmaceuticals companies, developing a private cloud that can be used by researchers, pharma companies and the regulatory authorities in the development of new drugs.

Across all of these many projects, Selley acknowledges one over-arching challenge: to make data understandable to regular people. “To my mind the biggest issue is not the processing of big data, but its consumption by real humans,” he says. “So the idea that you can visualize outputs in a way that is meaningful and actionable is one of my key research programs.”

And this cuts both ways: technologists also need to understand business objectives. He says: “The key with any technology-based program is to understand it is the business outcomes that matter, not the technology delivery. It is very important for CIOs and their technology teams to become embedded in the business and understand the business problems to be solved or the opportunities to be exploited.”

* This article was first published on CIO.co.uk