BT’s new CEO Allison Kirkby to start in February

BT finally announced that Allison Kirkby is to become its new chief executive on February 1, ushering in the U.K. operator’s first female CEO in its nearly 180-year-old history.

Kirkby takes over from Philip Jansen, who bowed out on a relatively high note late last year. Given her background and experience at former incumbent operators, the new CEO will no doubt hit the ground running. For instance, until recently she was president and CEO of Sweden-based Telia, and also previously held the CEO roles at both Tele2 Sweden and TDC Group.

At the same time, she faces an onerous and challenging to-do list, all to be performed under the intense gaze of shareholders who have seen share prices tumble by around 50% over the past five years.

Notably, Kirkby has been a non-executive director at BT Group since 2019 and said she is “fully supportive” of the operator’s existing turnaround plans.

Chief among the challenges will be to maintain the pace of 5G and fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) rollouts across the United Kingdom, while implementing prudent investment strategies and keeping a lid on net debt.

The promise of 5G and fiber

BT’s mobile operator EE is responsible for the 5G network, which currently covers 72% of the U.K. population, according to a BT update in December. Its aim is to enable a 5G connection anywhere in the U.K. by 2028.

EE is also about to start the process of retiring its 3G network to help strengthen the performance of both 4G and 5G.

The 5G network remains in non-standalone mode, meaning that it is still supported by the older 4G core. In September last year, Howard Watson, chief security and networks officer at BT Group, claimed that the group had made huge strides towards implementing 5G standalone (SA).

The operator is not yet divulging when it will flick the 5G SA switch to “live.” However, it noted that a key part of launching standalone is getting customers onto the new 5G core being built by Ericsson.

As things stand, 99% of traffic, including all 4G and 5G, is now off equipment formerly provided by Huawei and onto the Ericsson core, which BT sees as a key milestone, even though it just missed a government deadline to fully strip out Huawei kit from its core infrastructure by December 31.

As for the deployment of open radio access network (RAN), BT was, initially, not one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the technology, certainly when compared to its peers such as Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone.

Around 18 months ago, it launched a trial of Nokia’s RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) in an attempt to show its commitment to open RAN. For now, the group generally engages in promoting open RAN maturity and adoption, and it remains to be seen if its stance here will change under Kirkby.

EE is now being repositioned as “New EE”, meanwhile, with a growing focus on converged and adjacent service offerings and a digital platform.

Turning to fiber, BT’s Openreach division is responsible for the FTTP rollout, and in December said the network now passes 12.5 million premises. That means the group is halfway to its goal of 25 million premises by 2026 and remains on schedule. Although fiber is a capital-intensive business, BT also said it moved past peak capex in 2022 en route to its “all-fiber, all-IP network.”

The move away from legacy PSTN to fiber has not been without its challenges, as illustrated by attempts to force migrations to digital landline service Digital Voice. Recently, BT was forced to pause all non‑voluntary managed migrations to Digital Voice after telecare users encountered problems with their devices.

Kirkby will also oversee ongoing attempts to transform BT’s business division under the newly formed BT Business unit, created out of BT Global and BT Enterprise last year.

Looking at the wider market, the group may also face increased competition if Vodafone Group and CK Hutchison are able to merge their respective U.K. businesses as planned. BT/EE would then be up against two big heavyweights: Virgin Media O2 and a combined Vodafone/Three.

Kirkby is certainly embarking on an interesting period ahead.