Lam says there are a number of ways in which technology plays a role in building an ultrafast broadband network around research and innovation at the BT-run Adastral Park facility in Suffolk, notably on the hardware needed to upgrade standard fibre cabinets to Gfast, but also on enhancements to FTTP technology. A partnership with Huawei has already produced an FTTP passive optical network (Pon) capable of boosting speeds by 40 times, although this is still a few years from productisation.
Beyond innovation and evolving broadband standards, technology plays a major part in making the engineering and building of fibre networks easier in both urban and rural areas.
One recent project explored the use of drones, initially to fly equipment to engineers working on remote Scottish islands to save them having to catch a ferry back to the mainland if they didn’t have the right kit in the van. However, drones have now found a new application within Openreach – flying fibre cables across an otherwise impassable river in a remote part of Wales.
But it is in managing the national network roll-out that IT has its biggest role. “To build out FTTP, we first have to plan a network, and traditionally this is planned behind someone’s desk in an office before we dispatch a surveyor or any engineers,” says Lam.
“For complex builds, that can take up to 50 man-hours, so we worked with our innovation team and commissioned some machine learning algorithms that, based on the inputs of what we know is available in our inventory and a number of other parameters, can calculate and produce an optimal network plan.
“This can be done in seconds, and we have industrialised that now, so we can get it out in the field as quickly as possible. I think it’s a great example of where innovation in IT and agile technology can speed up network deployment.”
Ultimately, the idea is for Openreach’s IT estate to undergo a significant evolution to be more adaptive to account for the demands people now make of their broadband service. Until now, the network has been run on a number of big, heavy systems designed to be safe and reliable, but Openreach is now working on a set of microservices that will allow the network to adapt to changing customer needs while protecting the core.
“People rightly see broadband as a basic human right,” he says. “We need to support that. They need a quality, always-on product, and crucially, in trading with us, they expect a slick service, quick provisioning, quick fixes for problems.”
Out in the field, Lam is working on devolving more power to Openreach’s engineering workforce, which has already been equipped with iPhones and Openreach business applications to enable them to tap into central systems. This is now set to go further, and engineers will soon be empowered to manage and control their own jobs, while the introduction of an internal enterprise social media platform will help them work in groups, and enable young recruits to learn from the old hands.
“We recruited north of 1,500 engineers this year, and probably a similar number next year,” says Lam. “They will best learn from other engineers, so we want to create an internal social environment where people can share that expertise. Senior engineers are keen to impart wisdom, but they don’t often meet one another.”