business

BT CIO Sees Google as "Biggest Threat"

Al-Noor Ramji surprised industry watchers by naming the search engine as competition. Still he doesn't see it becoming a telco

Google is becoming BT's biggest competitor. That's the surprise assessment of BT's chief information officer, Al-Noor Ramji, who believes the telco "can do anything that Google can do".

Speaking at the Gigaworld IT conference in Lisbon on Wednesday, Ramji told delegates BT needs to change to keep pace with fast moving businesses such as Google.

Ramji said: "We see Google as our biggest threat. They don't mean to it's almost incidental." He admitted that Google came from a "different world" but suggested it had "morphed" into a different company, and warned it could do anything BT could do in the consumer space.

However, while conceding he did not know the endgame, Ramji claimed BT "can do anything Google can do" if it moves beyond its traditional role as a supplier of telecommunications services.

He said: "I've learned that technology is the easiest thing to do. The transformation of the company is most important."

Ramji also referred to the challenges that lay ahead in BT's expansion into IP-streamed television (IPTV), with its BT Vision service.

Citing new online services such as YouTube, the CIO said BT's customers had "morphed into three different roles now: customer, supplier and competitor".

But analysts were quick to add a heavy note of caution to Ramji's statements. Lars Godell, principal analyst in Forrester's Telecom & Networks research team, said: "I think he's a little bit ahead of his time. I give him credit for thinking ahead and being proactive about competitive threats but on the other hand the question is, is the threat realistic? Google doesn't see BT as a competitor.

"I think consumers still need to pay for bandwidth. That's the business of a telco and I don't see Google becoming a full service telco. I don't see Google owning an infrastructure."

Google has made some moves into the telecoms space in recent months, with its involvement in the rollout of free wireless services in California.

The search giant also sparked a wave of speculation in 2005 when it began showing interest in unused fibre networks. At the time, however, experts suggested Google was more likely to be looking at cutting the cost of connecting its data centres, rather than offering telecoms services.

Referring to the services BT plans to introduce later this year, Godell said: "It will take five to 10 years before those value-added services will become more important [than providing bandwidth] to a telco's revenue stream".

He added: "I don't think it will be easy for BT or anyone else to move into content. BT has been in IT services for 20 years - the skills that are needed to be successful in content are so different from those needed for telecoms."

The analyst also suggested it could have been deliberate scaremongering by the BT CIO. "A lot of painful changes are taking place inside BT from an employee perspective. If you can use an external threat to justify internal changes, it's easier to sell internally," he said.

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