Friday, August 11, 2006

What's happening to our phones? What's 21CN all about?

I met with a senior director of BT recently and he was really excited about something. He was falling over himself to tell me all about "21st Century Network" or 21CN as they call it. Working more at the application and systems levels, I found it hard to see what was so special. Sure, I can appreciate that £14billion will buy BT something very impressive, but at the end of the day don't telecom networks just get faster, more resiliant, higher bandwidth? We know that we've reached optical so surely nothing can be faster than that. So that leaves resiliant and higher bandwidth right?

Well, yes that is right. But I've been digging around on YOUR behalf and there is another dimension to this.

In essence 21CN is replacing the traditional phone network, PSTN, with an IP based solution. So what that first tells us is that BT will not just be interested in phones. Or rather, any IP-enabled device (which will be most things in a few years) will be able to be a phone given the appropriate software. BT will not be billing addresses. Accounts will not centre on the phone line. BT will be billing humans.

Services will be driven out of the core of the telecom network. What does this really mean? Well you might not realise it, but you're probably compartmentalising your life into your landline answerphone, your mobile answerphone, your email account etc. Well, this will unify all your services architecturally (although I'm sure the retail market will be competitive as ever). You will access your communications from any device at any time. You might feel that you have this already, but in reality it is being delivered by a mish-mash of technologies enabled by providers and applications that are a veneer across the top of many infrastructures. That costs. That costs alot. That's flaky.

That also has limitations. At the moment you cannot transfer your voice call between devices beyond a phone switch. And what if you want to continue your conversation as an Instant Message chat because you've stepped onto the bus? Seamless. No longer will your contacts need to be synched between different parts of your life. It isn't just stored centrally, at the deepest level, but it's everywhere- ubiquitous.

Bandwidth becomes unlimited.

Then things get really clever. Imagine if you buy your applications as services from your telco. A whole world of applications as yet unimagined is going to explode into out lives from 2007 and I, for one, can't wait. I think we forget how much of a chore it is to constantly log in and out of applications through our modern working lives. I'm going to start counting. But, 21CN holds the possibility of never having to log in ever again. Never will any consumer or SME ever need to buy data storage hardware again. You will pay per byte for storage. You will pay for data transfer in many different ways. Your application will decide how to route a packet of data. Sending a Petabyte of data from London to New York in the next minute will not only be possible, but it will be priced differently to if it doesn't need to be there until 24 hours later.

And it will be cheap. In the last 10 years the cost of calls has dropped by 80%. This will continue and, I believe, accelerate.

So, when you hear BT talking about 21CN, sit up and listen. So far, it takes some leap of imagination to picture what they are describing, but as the time approaches for services to launch the message will become clearer about what it means to us.

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