Philip Jansen is acutely aware how vital the internet has become during the pandemic.
Whether it has been Zoom calls for work or for staying in touch with friends, or evening entertainment on BBC iPlayer and Netflix, the BT chief executive has been at the heart of the telecoms industry’s mission to keep the country’s strained broadband network functioning.
If that wasn’t enough, the 54-year-old – who overcame Covid himself last March – has also been fighting fires on several other fronts: BT faces lawsuits at home and abroad, potential strike action by staff, and a looming regulatory review which will map out its fate for the next decade.
So it’s a little surprising that Jansen’s main message to BT staff, shareholders and customers is simply: ‘We have to change dramatically.’
Vision: Philip Jansen says Covid has shown how IT can help the NHS
The most noticeable change, in the short term at least, will be reducing the number of BT buildings – offices, call centres and so on – from 300 to just 30. Union leaders want a pause in what are potentially thousands of redundancies so negotiations can take place. Jansen dismisses the suggestion.
‘We’ve been on pause for compulsory redundancies since 1984,’ he says, referring to the date BT was privatised. Of the staff who face redundancy he adds: ‘Our plan is to deal with those people professionally, elegantly, in a classy way.’
Despite his relentlessly positive attitude to the layoffs, the first strike action since BT’s privatisation is starting to look like a real possibility. Perhaps understandably, Jansen speaks with much more enthusiasm about BT’s other ‘dramatic’ changes, which include a major push into new markets.
One key target is the $74billion-a year (£55billion-a-year) global healthcare information technology sector, pitting the former state monopoly against Silicon Valley giants such as Apple and Google.
Jansen says the rapid take-up of online prescriptions and GP video consultations in the lockdown has shown how reliable information technology can help ease the burden on our overstretched NHS.
‘What we need to do is find a way where there is accelerated take-up of some of these technologies to get the benefits that are so obviously there,’ Jansen says.
BT, which connected the temporary Nightingale hospitals and a string of vaccination centres, is in discussions with NHSX, the technology arm of the health service, on several initiatives. One is using the 5G network to help with logistics to make the NHS more productive, freeing up over-worked staff.
As The Mail on Sunday revealed last week, BT is in early stage talks with several NHS trusts to use tagged bracelets to track patients and doctors in hospitals to reduce the cost of missed appointments.
Jansen reveals his own mother is involved in a separate pilot scheme to help care for the elderly. BT’s Connected Care app learns about a person’s routine around the home.
It uses sensors to monitor which devices, such as TVs and kettles, are used at what times, and sends reminders to their user’s phone or smart speaker. It also alerts carers in any break in routine.
Jansen says: ‘My mother’s 82 and living by herself. I can get alerted if she doesn’t make it to the kitchen by nine o’clock, as do her carers. We could even see someone having a fall and we could alert somebody.’
If the trials are successful, the service will be launched this year.
Meanwhile, in December a BTled consortium launched a trial in Reading to test the UK’s first commercial ‘drone corridor’, which will this summer see drones used for medical deliveries and to help in search and rescue efforts and responding to traffic accidents.
Jansen hopes the Government will consider relaxing rules on drones – which outlaw their use beyond the line of sight of the operator – for emergency services.
BT has also worked with University Hospital Birmingham on a project which allows consultants to advise paramedics in an ambulance and send detailed visual instructions to appear on a so-called ‘augmented reality’ headset.
Jansen’s image on my screen freezes several times during our interview on Microsoft Teams, framed by the backdrop of his West London home, where he says his five children are keeping him busy. He was already a wealthy executive before starting the BT gig in February 2019, having landed about £30million from the sale of Worldpay, the payments firm he ran, to America’s Vantiv in 2018.
But while his home working is relatively comfortable, Jansen is no fan of sitting in his study day in, day out. He says: ‘This rectangular existence is soulless and lacks any depth and colour and doesn’t give you the chance to connect really personally with people.’
Plans are being made for ‘smart working’, allowing BT’s 100,000 staff to work flexibly. But Jansen cautions: ‘What we don’t want is lots of mixed-up meetings where someone’s on the phone, someone’s on video and there’s half a dozen people in the meeting.’
Several problems remain before Jansen can truly look to the future. In Italy, a court case about an accounting scandal that tarnished Jansen’s predecessor Gavin Patterson legacy is being heard.
In Britain, BT faces a class action over claims it failed to compensate elderly customers who were overcharged for landlines for years.
As well as forcing BT’s 600-plus retail stores to shut, the pandemic has reduced data usage abroad and income to BT Sport, which is often shown in Britain’s bars and pubs.
BT’s share price has deteriorated sharply from £4.30 five years ago to £1.24 today, and last year bankers dusted off BT’s takeover defence strategy should an opportunistic predator come knocking.
There’s also talk that BT might sell a stake in Openreach, which looks after the country’s telecoms cables, wires and masts and is worth up to £20billion.
The surge in usage during the pandemic has underscored the value of Openreach, which serves rivals, including Sky and TalkTalk, as well as BT’s consumer division.
Jansen is ‘open minded’ about a sale, but adds: ‘It’s an extremely valuable asset and therefore we don’t particularly need anybody right now to help us with funding.’
BT, which has suspended its dividend, does face a potentially huge bill for expanding Britain’s broadband network, however.
Openreach plans to spend £12billion delivering super-fast broadband to 20million homes by the mid-to-late 2020s and the regulator, Ofcom, will next month conclude a review that could determine the pace of those upgrades, while setting out how much money BT can make from the roll-out.
That – and a revaluation of its pension scheme this summer – could change BT’s financial outlook, and Jansen admits that at that point, in terms of funding, ‘we’ll have a look at it again, maybe’.
The Ofcom review comes amid a chorus of complaints from rivals about Openreach’s dominance of the broadband network, and its potential to ratchet up prices. Jansen finds this unhelpful, saying: ‘I think we should be allowed to get on with it. Connectivity has never been more important.
‘It will provide the catalyst to a whole host of new applications and services and products that we don’t even know about yet.’
With Britain’s economy in urgent need of a boost, BT staff, shareholders – and the general public – must hope he’s right.
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