Enabling the Covid-19 home working shift in remarkable timescales could justifiably be seen as the making of the UK’s comms sector. But the challenge of driving full fibre adoption may be the ultimate test as the 2025 PSTN switch off and all-IP comes into clear view. During an online Insight Session hosted by Comms Dealer in association with BT Wholesale last month, our panel of experts untangled the new product adoption challenges and provided a strategic view of where the channel really needs to be.
All the industry knows it has to break loose from the PSTN and traditional models soon, so resellers should not deny themselves time to consider the one certain engine of future growth – full fibre. “2025 is not far away when you think about what is going to transform in the marketplace over that period,” said Paul Beacham (pictured), Senior Manager, Data Networking, BT Wholesale.
“So it’s about getting ahead of the curve and educating the market on the multiple challenges that the industry is going through. That also presents an opportunity to support channel partners through to the end customers, helping them to navigate that journey. Focusing on solutions that enhance continuity and help resilience will be critical, and full fibre clearly has a key role to play.”
Arguments in favour of resellers adopting full fibre sooner rather than later are unassailable. Nothing should dissuade any ICT reseller from the fact that only a FTTP strategy stands between them and the eventual evaporation of their business, believes Sara Sheikh, Product Lead for Data at Gamma. “It’s an existential issue,” she stated. “If you’re not thinking about full fibre you could be out of the game. It’s important for resellers to be aware of this and we have been careful and considered about our messaging so far. There will be challenges, but it’s also a great opportunity to move away from selling products to selling services and getting closer to the customer, and to really change how we interact with users. Our message to resellers is not to panic but embrace this.”
Comms resellers have always mattered to UK businesses, but never more so than now
Going all-IP is about new products and services and driving adoption, which is a complex and developmental process that will crucially require a coherent channel framework. But certain availability and process capabilities need to be quickly fulfilled before resellers can adopt full fibre at a time when deferring the decision until later is becoming less of an option. “The current coverage of FTTP across the UK is not enough for us to form a new strategy on how we do business,” said Vicki Rishbeth, Technical Director, Focus Group. “And the current FTTP product does not have what I would consider to be a SLA. I’m looking forward to Openreach coming to the fore with something that is more befitting to the business community.
“One of the biggest challenges I have is washing my base on a regular basis to see whether a FTTP has popped up. I would like to see Openreach give us that data. On another point, we will be migrating a lot of customers from either FTTC or SOGEA onto FTTP. I’d also like to see a smooth migration process using the same IP addressing to make it as seamless as possible for the customer.”
In developing a FTTP adoption strategy we must of course reduce adoption friction as much as possible. When adopting something new it helps to lower the barriers and for fibre there is much work yet to be done as it is a very different beast. “For a large percentage of FTTP circuits ordered its actually a manual process, and Ethernet is a higher margin product,” observed Sheikh. “FTTP is a much lower margin product and the process doesn’t justify it. What happens when the FTTP footprint and order volumes increase? If we don’t have that automation in place we will struggle.”
Resellers may also find themselves weighing the incremental benefits of adopting FTTP against the implications, including costs, of change. “Some partners are slow to adopt new technology,” commented Jamie Gunnell, Connectivity Product Manager, Node4. “I remember trying to sell IP over traditional analogue lines and ISDN when partners were making quite large margins on those products. There may be more features and greater alignment to where things are moving in the future, but it was worth less to them in terms of margins. It’s different with full fibre. Removing copper from anyone’s network has got to be positive, and it is important to get partners understanding what is happening in the market.”
We must consider the forces that will determine the FTTP adoption process, and how the channel can better drive uptake. This boils down to how FTTP is communicated and the overall delivery process, including education. “The move to full fibre is key, but education is absolutely critical to make this work,” added Barry Ward, Director Disruptive Technology, Wavenet. “The education has to flow from the ISPs and network carriers through to the reseller channel and down to the end user. That is absolutely critical. We could have a lot of people buying these services but not getting the performance they expected. Education is key.”
Comms resellers have always mattered to UK businesses, but perhaps never more so than at this time as we acclimatise to the Covid-19 pandemic and head towards the 2025 PSTN switch off and an all-IP world. Yet the scale of the challenge may not be fully appreciated, believes David Palmer, Head of Product Network Design, Claranet. “I don’t think the realisation is quite there about how much work is needed to get to a full IP infrastructure,” he said. “On the question of where we are now and where we need to be in five years time, there is a massive disparity between the knowledge and understanding resellers have and what is actually happening in the market.
“Many channel resellers will have to change their fundamental business models. We have partners who sell PSTN and connectivity aiming at the volume market. Going forward there is a great opportunity to develop a service wrap and offer bespoke services. How you differentiate is a hard game to play, but there is an opportunity for providers and resellers to change the model of how they work. In moving to a FTTP strategy automation is key. But the systems are not there yet. Automation has to improve. How we check for FTTP availability is very different from FTTC and quite a challenge.”
The 2025 switch off should become the lodestar of all channel business strategies
It is actual FTTP diffusion that will ultimately determine the pace of adoption. But until many more premises are served and resellers can operate smoothly in the FTTP world it may contribute little towards driving digital transformation. Yet the case for FTTP considerations strengthens by the day, despite the channel being somewhat adrift on how to deliver on the promise. “The industry is in a transition phase of moving to new products but hasn’t resolved the quality of delivery,” pointed out Steve Barclay, Managing Director, Networks, 9 Group. “There is too much manual input and much work to do be done to make things more efficient.
“As a society we expect things to be much easier to access, and have information available at our finger tips, know our options and take more control. Pushing as much as possible out to the edge in terms of the service delivery and the end user is key. You can still maintain that relationship: Ultimately it is about a service that is easier to understand for all elements of the channel so partners can manage that process on the customers’ behalf.”
Among the big determinants of new technology adoption are the benefits offered to resellers and users. A strong and receptive customer base is an important factor, and, in the main, the upsides derived from FTTP are flow benefits received during the life of the customer relationship. This reflects an important reality: that RoI for resellers happens over time rather than ‘in the hand’. “The key is how full fibre creates the foundations to offer over the top services,” added Beacham. “For a wholesaler like BT Wholesale it’s about how we expose those capabilities to customers in a way that makes it easier to consume. Simplifying the process is a key aspect we are looking at from a portfolio perspective and how services are brought together.”
In becoming agents of change and nailing their colours to the mast of FTTP and OTT services, resellers’ strategic foresight will be rewarded, noted Palmer. “Resellers need to look at the additional overlay services they can offer, almost turning their business model on its head and evaluating the value adds and services,” he said. “We are doing that ourselves. People expect more than just the network. Now it’s about getting more embedded in the customer, so we need to understand them better to move forward and evolve that service.”
The same approach applies to resellers needing to gain a clearer view of their own future business model, believes Barclay. “We are moving into an era where we have communication as a service rather than hardware,” he said. “Service delivery is critical to building long-term relationships with customers. That’s where the return on investment will come from – the continued relationship and partnership. Resellers will be effective in winning business and maintaining customers with a good level of service.”
According to Sheikh, this is about more than securing RoI. How resellers add value could ultimately determine the survivability prospects of their businesses in an uncertain world. “For the channel there is a massive threat from the tech industry being able to reach out to customers directly, leveraging the ease of service they offer and the low touch access they provide,” she stated. “They have a lot of money and funding behind them.
“Operational excellence is where the channel can add value on the support side. The channel knows its customers and has relationships, and can separate itself by providing a personalised experience. If communication between the value chain can be streamlined and automated then the channel is better able to support customers and deliver the value add that would protect them from that external threat.”
The magnetism of connectivity, particularly full fibre, determines that it should not be sold as a stand alone product, especially if it is to fend off looming threats to the channel, emphasised Ward. “It has to be part of a deeper delivery mechanism to make sure the solution works end-to-end,” he stated. “As an aggregator we work with many of the major ISPs and we have to make sure that operational excellence is instilled into our processes upstream and downstream. How you fit those together and streamline that process is an important challenge in achieving operational excellence, especially if you are overlaying multiple services.”
David Aldritt, Technology & Innovation Director, Highnet, commented: “There is a challenge for us all to understand how we build those systems to optimal advantage. Today it is easy to go to full automation and lose touch with what is at the other end – a live customer running a live business. During that search for improving our bottom line we need to get clever about how we also capture customer data, understand the customer and understand channel partners.”
The good news is that the 2025 cliff edge deadline works in the channel’s favour, as older competing technologies will no longer be a barrier to the shift to newer access technologies such as FTTP. “The pace of change is encouraging,” added Aldritt. “The roll out has been accelerating and it will continue to do so. The clear goal is the same for everyone – that the PSTN switch off is going to happen, we will get rid of copper eventually, and that ‘eventually’ is getting closer and closer. Having those discussions and considerations internally and externally has to be on the agenda right now.”
The 2025 switch off should therefore become the lodestar of all future channel business strategies – which must include a FTTP component, but not be wholly dictated by full fibre, observed Beacham. “In the context of 2025 much of the talk is around full fibre and all-IP, with a big focus on the PSTN switch off,” he commented. “It’s not just about PSTN, there are a number of legacy services and access technologies that will be retired. All private circuits for example, and legacy copper-based EFM access.
“FTTP is clearly going to grow in importance, but it should be seen as part of the overall portfolio of connectivity solutions. With FTTP one of the challenges we all have is the geographic roll out and our understanding of this will continue to evolve. Working closely with Openreach we will get a clearer view of FTTP Professional and the commercials which will be specifically targeting the business market. Ultimately, the road to full fibre isn’t a single initiative managed in isolation – there are many other market programmes over the next five years that will form part of the channel strategy.
“At BT Wholesale I firmly believe this is not just about evolving – it’s about transforming. I’ve been at BT for 20 years and this is the most exciting time I’ve experienced as we are fundamentally going to transform the business, the services we offer and how we offer them to the channel.”
More Session Insights...
Many organisations do not expect to go back to full office working, so business grade connectivity is required within homes. This is a tremendous opportunity for the channel. Full fibre has to be a key part of this.
David Aldritt, Technology & Innovation Director, Highnet
The biggest shift we have seen is to collaboration and this has implications on connectivity. As well as a dispersed workforce driving more bandwidth requirements you’ve got expandable and flexible security and measurement tools such as productivity – all underpinned by the connectivity layer.
Barry Ward, Director Disruptive Technology, Wavenet
We’ve seen massive uptake of Teams as our customers take a more unified approach. People are reviewing why they are in an office. We’ve looked at how we are working and made some permanent decisions.
Vicki Rishbeth, Technical Director, Focus Group
Full fibre at the end of the day is plumbing. But that plumbing is absolutely critical and the quintessential part of any solution that a partner rolls out. FTTP will definitely help to build value and keep resellers in the game because you can’t use a copper service to provide the applications that most businesses need these days.
Sara Sheikh, Product Lead for Data, Gamma
Educating resellers on full fibre is part of our responsibility, and guidance is a key part of our strategy. We can’t let partners stumble through this. To build a strong channel you need to guide them.
Steve Barclay, Managing Director, Networks, 9 Group
There are more questions asked about FTTP and people are excited. But clients don’t really understand until we do the education piece, which is key to how we productise and position FTTP with the customer.
Jamie Gunnell, Connectivity Product Manager, Node4
The way businesses are evolving and using these new technologies is a great opportunity for channel businesses if they move quickly and have a full fibre strategy built into their thinking. They are then equipped to give the best advice and be the trusted advisor.
Steve Barclay, Managing Director, Networks, 9 Group
The main challenges I see ahead of 2025 lie with other services running over the PSTN which are getting overlooked. If we migrate a service that has Redcare, a lift line or EPOS service for example, it’s not technology we supply or are trained for, but it will be our number customers call when things stops working.
Vicki Rishbeth, Technical Director, Focus Group
Full fibre, all-IP and channel partnerships will be critical to the future, and there needs to be flexibility up and down the channel to support new business models.
Carla Barrow, Senior Sales Manager, BT Wholesale