“It is still a bit of a zoo” – BT sets up as Industry 4.0 keeper and private 5G leader

Contrary to the popular narrative among new telco upstarts that traditional mobile operators will be left behind in the Industry 4.0 race – on the grounds they are entrenched and parochial, geared for box-shifting and hobbled by local assets – UK-based BT says the opposite is true: that its private 5G proposition is differentiated precisely because of its legacy resources. It has a broader spectrum portfolio with which to spring Industry 4.0 for enterprises, it reckons.

“We have more tools in our kitbag,” says Marc Overton, managing director of Division X, the company’s industrial go-to-market business, in response to a prompt about what BT does-different with private 5G, compared to its rivals in the cellular market. “It is still a bit of a zoo; people do bits and pieces,” he says. “No one is doing all of it very well.” System integrators and industrial specialists, and plenty of others, are blinkered in their own ways, he suggests.

He adds: “We are looking at the whole thing to see what the right solution is for the right use cases in the right scenarios.” The point for serious-minded old-school telcos – which the market is missing, he suggests – is they can have it both ways. BT’s airtime holdings in the UK give it an edge, he says, notably with the supply of cellular-based systems to critical industry; but they should not define its approach, either, or confine its offering, he argues.

And they might not count for very much if the rest of the Industry 4.0 supplier market does not rally around to build solutions on top. BT’s global enterprise division (Global), with none of the baggage (and, by the same token, none of the local airtime advantage, actually) has been more familiar with team sport of IoT, he suggests. “It is good at solution selling – because it doesn’t have the network assets. It has to sell other solutions, other people’s products.”

For the UK enterprise business, the discipline – to make BT into a “tech-co”, as per the cliché about the outward transformation of telcos – is to replicate the kind of collaborative Industry 4.0 sales model that has defined its global division. “Dare I say, it is more focused on business outcomes than just on enabling connectivity,” he says. Its UK team could learn a thing or two about ecosystems and partnerships, it seems. “We are in the foothills,” he reflects.

(Note: Last month, after the interview with Overton in November, BT moved to combine its national and international enterprise divisions, BT Enterprise and BT Global, in a single unit called BT Business. The newly combined business is headed by Bas Burger, previously chief executive of its BT Global unit. BT Business commenced at the start of this month,January, and will start reporting as a single unit from April 1.)

In late November, amid a sticky run of end-of-year report writing, Enterprise IoT Insights visited Adastral Park in Suffolk, the global research headquarters of UK-based telecoms operator BT. The occasion was its annual Robotics Festival, which saw the opening of a new ‘digital industries innovation showcase’, a multi-room mock-up featuring 40-odd Industry 4.0 use cases, covering private networks, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and all the rest of it.

A guided tour of the showcase included lots of robotics, invariably. It stopped at a neat-looking satellite IoT installation, and critical stuff on industrial OT security. Journalists paused at an arsenal of anti-drone guns (not to be referred to as “guns”, we were instructed) for airports and other facilities. There was a hologram-style teleportation chamber in a hospital setup – using a high-res camera, a high-speed network, and a big-sized screen.

Basically, pretty much all of Industry 4.0 was here, in this new exhibition space – where various IoT technologies weave through a maze of rooms and corridors, going industry by industry, from healthcare to defence, to transportation and city management, to distribution and logistics, to farming and utilities, to manufacturing and defence. Some of it is real-life, and some is science fiction – or what marketing likes to call the ‘art of the possible’.

The story from the day was about how IoT-themed sensor tech might just change industry, and more. It is the same one that plays out in these pages daily, and was the subject of the opening keynote address in November, as well – from Overton, flanked by Maria Cuevas, director of future networks research at BT (who presented BT’s take on five key challenges to bring private 5G to the masses at Private Networks Forum in October). But six weeks have passed since the Robotics Festival, and our notes from the event appear to have vanished in a bout of festive admin.

Nevertheless, a taped recording of the subsequent discussion with Overton remains, and is worth revisiting – on the grounds BT is the biggest telco in Britain, the only one (says Overton) with a UK-based R&D centre, and the only one as well (say some market watchers) to really “get” unlicensed cellular as a platform for Industry 4.0. The last point is anecdotal, and unqualified, but BT is repeatedly cited off-the-record as the one-to-watch among UK operators.

It is also interesting because it is nine months since Enterprise IoT Insights last caught up with BT in a one-to-one setting (with the company’s outgoing UK enterprise chief Rob Shuter), at MWC in Barcelona, to talk about the firm’s journey from telco to tech-co – and also just because the conversation with Overton, as previewed here, was a good one.

Ultimately BT expects to ‘prime’, he says; that is, it intends to lead the Industry 4.0 consultancy on the supplier-side. It will go mob-handed (as BT Business, now) to the table with a gang of reputable supplier brands. He offers Microsoft, PwC, Ericsson, Atos, as examples. But BT will hold the customer relationship in the end, he says – particularly in the UK when critical national infrastructure looks to dial-up digital change. Its global pursuit of Industry 4.0 is perhaps more nuanced.

But as much as BT’s strategy work is to optimise its own spectrum assets and to collaborate with tech partners and domain specialists on bespoke Industry 4.0 solutions, Overton’s point as well is that the enterprise market has changed. Post-pandemic, mid-recession, and pre-apocalypse (!), digital transformation is a boardroom concern, possibly; the Division X team is talking to the top brass about the mechanics of it, and not just the tech chiefs anymore.

As demand starts to simmer for cellular-based Industry 4.0, BT’s challenge is also to start to make its own case as an agent for tech-enabled change. It needs to say less about why this stuff matters, says Overton, just because it is now better understood, and more about why it matters to enterprises to go with BT. “We have spent a lot of time talking about why-private-5G and why-IoT; we haven’t been as focused yet on why-BT – on winning in the market.”

Division X was established last summer to “scale up and commercialise… unique customer solutions”, writes BT, to include private cellular, IoT monitoring, and edge computing, nominally, as the “foundations to fuel the digital transformation of high growth industries”. It will put BT “at the heart of building the UK’s economic recovery”, the company explains. Overton makes clear his Division X remit cuts across BT’s global enterprise division, as well.

Expect, then, for Division X to make clear in 2023 why BT is best to ‘prime’ Industry 4.0, and why progressive telcos are not falling behind in the race – even as it trades ideas between its enterprise divisions, and ascends from the foothills. Incidentally, the last time we caught up was when Overton was running EE’s MVNO division (and I was somewhere else) about a decade ago, prior to EE’s acquisition in 2016 by Overton’s new employer BT. 

He has been “living on a plane”, he explains – “running global tech businesses out of the West Coast”. The first half of his decade-long state-side odyssey was with merchant services firm First Data (now Fiserv) and then IoT platform provider Jasper Wireless (Cisco). The second half was with IoT MVNO Sierra Wireless, currently mid-acquisition by Semtech. Which is where the conversation at Adastral Park in November started.

The full interview with Marc Overton will be published separately next week.

The post “It is still a bit of a zoo” – BT sets up as Industry 4.0 keeper and private 5G leader appeared first on Enterprise IoT Insights.

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