Concrete details of operators’ big data projects remain thin on the ground, so it was pleasing to see BT and Cloudera shed some light last month on what they are doing.
The two companies revealed that the UK operator is using the vendor’s big data tech for two specific projects: improving its broadband service and getting a more unified view of its enterprise customers.
In an interview with European Communications, BT’s Chief Data Architect Philip Radley put some meat on the bones of the announcement.
He begins by explaining that the operator has been focused on working out how to use big data since 2012.
The road to the August announcement truly started when BT’s R&D team knocked on his door with a Hadoop-based project that had reached “semi production mode”.
It was Radley’s job to evaluate it and improve it to a point where it could be implemented.
Understandably, there were many facets that he had to consider to reach the point today where they are happy to talk about it.
Stakeholders, notably the data centre and IT departments, had to be consulted and vendors came and went with proposals about how they could help with the implementations.
However, it all came down to cost. Radley says: “We wanted to make it one of the last major IT costs we would have to make.”
BT chose Cloudera and, specifically, its enterprise data hub solution following an introduction from Oracle.
Radley says it is the only vendor BT is working with on the software side currently, although others are now being “evaluated”.
So what, precisely is it using the tech for?
On the broadband side, BT is looking to reduce costs associated with its Openreach division.
Openreach is responsible for the last mile of the UK’s broadband network and leases broadband lines to other operators.
Rivals can then test the lines to check they are functioning to the required level of service.
If one suspects a problem, it can raise a request with Openreach for them to send out an engineer out into the field to provide a solution.
Radley says this happens “hundreds of times a week”, which naturally costs Openreach a pretty penny.
Further, it is happening amid what he describes as the “endless war on broadband speeds being played out in the media”.
The problem comes with the fact that the fault may lie in the customers’ home, such as a router, which Openreach has no access to.
To get over this issue, Radley and his team are using big data to provide a much more granular analysis of testing, with the aim of reducing the number of engineers Openreach has to send out.
Radley says it’s no longer “a simple pass/fail test” that is performed and “several million [pounds] in opex savings” are forecast over the next three years.
On the enterprise side, BT wanted to overcome legacy issues – the number one challenge cited by respondents to European Communications annual big data survey this year.
Customer records were spread across multiple databases, which needed to be reconciled and updated every day.
Using Cloudera’s enterprise data hub, BT’s “masterfile” of business customer records is now on one platform.
Radley says: “The steer we were given by the finance people was to deliver RoI in a clear period of time.”
According to the executive, BT went “significantly faster” and processed three times as much data in a third of the time.
Radley describes the overall implementation as “one big change programme”.
He says one of the biggest challenges was communicating with BT’s labyrinthine internal stakeholders.
In particular, a major roadblock was how to align the shiny new big strategy with existing strategies.
“They assumed that they’d virtualise everything,” says Radley.
Consequently, his team put together a slideshow aimed at “resetting expectations”.
It illustrated an analogy of building Stonehenge by hand and with a fork-lift truck.
Radley claims the sceptics became “strong advocates” from a cost reduction point-of-view.
Cloudera led the first implementation last year, but Radley says BT is now “pretty much self sufficient”.
He says the next project he is working on relates to BT’s re-entry into the mobile market.
The operator is looking at “telemetry for femtocells” – BT’s strategy for mobile, prior to its proposed acquisition of EE, is based on having a cell in the home that acts as a 4G base station.
Radley says realtime data processed on a big data platform will help the operator to better fine tune and scale the network.
One area BT is not looking at currently is using big data to drive new revenue streams – once the great white hope for operators with Telefónica’s Smart Steps project in the vanguard.
Radley says: “Our short-term view is that monetising internal data would be a distraction. We watched Telefónica get burned.”
The executive is also dismissive of the need for a Chief Data Officer at BT.
Radley sits in BT’s Technology, Service & Operations division, which is responsible for delivering and operating networks, platforms and IT systems.
He says: “Why do we need to create such a role? If we did, three-quarters of my inbox would be directed to him.”
So, maybe not so much a lack of requirement as a case of protecting one’s own job although it is a sentiment you suspect is shared by many of his peers.
European Communications' recent survey also found that the majority of operator respondents who do not have a CDO in place do not want to see the role being created.
What’s more, Radley admits that BT is not moving “as fast as we should” when it comes to its overall big data strategy.
Ultimately, however open and forward-looking BT is being there are plenty of old fashioned, endemic issues that seem to be holding them back.