Associate Feature: Close Connections
It is worth reminding ourselves that November 2019 was little more than two years ago. It was the month before the first case of an emerging infectious disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus was officially identified in a medical patient in Wuhan, China. It was a different era. As we now know, that disease – Covid-19 – would rapidly spread across the globe with heartbreaking consequences and force us to change almost every element of how we live our daily lives.
Half a world away, in Glasgow, November 2019 also marked the month in which Alan Lees stepped into his new role as Scotland Director for BT Enterprise. Lees’ move was the latest chapter in an extensive career with the communications and technology group, but his new role and responsibilities would transform drastically within the space of a few months.
“We spent the first few months planning and putting together a strategy to tell customers and potential customers across the country about the value we can provide and how we can enhance their business or public service,” Lees says as he sits down to speak to Holyrood. “Overnight, all those plans changed. Our support and delivery to critical national infrastructure – health boards, the NHS, the police – was paramount. So, our immediate priority was to reach out to those customers and reassure them that we were here for whatever they needed.”
A large part of those requirements consisted of supporting the mass migration of clients’ employees from an office to remote working environment, he says. Often this meant enabling stable access to complex and secure systems, something that BT was thankfully already well-versed in. Indeed, the group found itself facing the exact same challenges as its countless business clients nationwide. It was able to use the experience in near-real time to inform how it supported those companies.
On a broader but equally crucial level, Lees also explains how the challenge of maintaining connectivity in the early days of the pandemic – and just a few months into his new role –became key to the country adapting to a new normal. Loss of connectivity for residential customers may previously have meant loss of access to streaming services or online gaming. During the pandemic, it meant people would lose the ability to do their jobs or educate their children, a colossal responsibility.
“Similarly, ensuring people were able to contact the NHS when they started to feel unwell was vital,” he says. “In the early days of the pandemic, when nobody quite knew what was happening, there was genuinely an element of panic around the country. We had to ensure the infrastructure was in place to support people through all that. There was an element of disappointment at not being able to start off in the new role quite how I had envisaged. But that was more than balanced out by the responsibility we have as an organisation to keep the country connected.”
It is important, Lees says, to envisage a scenario in which BT’s network had not been able to meet the unprecedented demands placed on it, or indeed if modern connectivity had simply not been available to help society adapt. He acknowledges the sacrifices people made, the ways in which doctors and nurses made themselves available for key medical appointments remotely, as did teachers and lecturers for remote classes. Had strong and reliable connectivity not been available, huge swathes of the economy and public services would have ground to a halt.
The social impact would also have been far greater, he believes, had people not been able to make productive use of their time. Equally, people would have felt more isolated without the ability to stay in touch with friends and family. In short, says Lees, BT’s response to the connectivity challenge enabled some degree of necessary normality during extraordinary times.
“One of the services we have been incredibly proud of, which carries with it a great element of sadness, is our Life Lines service,” explains Lees. “We provided connectivity and devices in ICUs across the country – to enable people to stay in touch with loved ones who were potentially moving towards their last days and hours. Without the right connectivity, that wouldn’t have been possible. It has been a tremendously sad situation, but the pandemic has enabled us to show the very best of ourselves and to demonstrate our real commitment to public services in Scotland.”
Beyond the services that it has provided throughout the pandemic, BT has also continued to play its role as a major employer in Scotland. The group directly employs more than 7,000 people in the country, as well as thousands more who are employed indirectly. Lees highlights that, despite having to temporarily close certain elements of its operations such as retail stores, BT consciously avoided furloughing any of its employees, instead opting to reassign those impacted into alternative positions of value. He explains that CEO Philip Jansen was always clear that employees’ wellbeing and job security were of paramount importance to him and to the business as a whole.
“I’m immensely proud of the work my colleagues do each day, and in all weathers, including on wet and windy days like today,” says Lees. “They’ve connected more than half a million homes and businesses to our full-fibre network, from Shetland to Stranraer, and we’re continuing to build to thousands each week. We’re on track to meet our 25 million UK-wide target by 2026. Back in 2019 we were the first company to launch 5G in Scotland which now covers most major towns and cities. And we’re now halfway to connecting a further 600 rural locations across Scotland to 4G. As of today, EE’s 4G network covers 73 per cent of Scotland’s landmass, more than any of the other three nations.”
The company is underlining its commitment to Scotland by moving towards the construction phase on its new multi-million pound contact centre at West Marketgait in Dundee, part of a £1bn regeneration project for the area. The move will secure 1,000 jobs in the city, while BT’s Glasgow office is also set for a major refurbishment that will lead to several newly created jobs.
The start of 2022 has brought further positive news, with Glasgow and Dundee also named as two of the eight UK cities where BT plans to recruit more than 600 apprentices and graduates in the coming year. Scotland plays a major role in the group’s operations, Lees says, with its base in Thurso acting as a major employer in the area and complementing those activities in Glasgow, Dundee, Greenock, Edinburgh and Alness. Combined, these operations span Openreach on the network side, to sales, support, services, cybersecurity and technology, offering a broad range of career opportunities. BT sees itself very much as a technology company as well as a telecommunications group, Lees says, and it aims to be as attractive to top emerging talent as tech giants like Google and Apple.
The latest recruitment drive forms part of BT Group’s £15bn plans to roll out full-fibre broadband and 5G mobile networks across the UK. “One of the challenges we face is to make sure everybody understands how crucial it really is,” says Lees. “Looking at the challenges of rural connectivity, clearly 4G is a solution to some of that problem.
“We also have ambitions for improving healthcare, for example. If we get this right – in partnership with the Scottish and UK governments – you could find yourself in a local surgery somewhere in the Islands and have a live diagnosis with a top consultant based in Edinburgh or Glasgow. We’ve launched an immersive classroom, where you put 360° screens in primary schools and within seconds the kids – some from deprived backgrounds – can experience the Great Barrier Reef or the Great Wall of China. You need the right connectivity to be able to do that and the transformational potential is absolutely huge.”
Despite often being viewed as a form of public service, BT of course has the same responsibilities to shareholders as any private sector company. It follows that any investment the group makes must also make sense from a business standpoint, although BT Group is investing billions in the UK. It is for this reason, Lees says, that the continuation, and indeed enhancement, of partnerships with government is so vital. To this end, BT is currently undertaking the £25m Scottish 4G Infill (S4GI) Programme with the backing of Scottish Government, to provide 4G coverage to predominantly rural areas lacking any form of mobile connectivity. The 4G and next-generation broadband rollouts have also received significant government support.
“Connectivity is everything,” he says. “The potential is vast. Perhaps BT’s investments in networks, jobs and the wider economy aren’t fully understood, or there’s an expectation that it has a duty to do what it does. But there aren’t many companies investing north of £30bn in the UK economy during a global pandemic or working in partnership with government at the scale and pace BT is.”
For Lees, after the acute challenges the pandemic has thrown up so early into his new role, it is time to accelerate towards the future and build on that meaningful partnership with government.
This article was sponsored by BT.