BT boss: It's still all about communicating - it's just faster
BT Northern Ireland networks boss Alex Crossan looks back at 38 years with the firm and tells John Mulgrew how the company he joined straight out of school is going from strength to strength
When BT boss Alex Crossan started working for the then Post Office Telecommunications back in the late Seventies, the concept of the internet hadn’t even yet been realised, let alone fibre-optic broadband.
BT has since pioneered superfast broadband, and has a direct workforce of 3,000 staff in Northern Ireland alone, and around 2,000 indirect workers.
Alex, managing director for networks in Northern Ireland, is a “lifer” at the firm — having joined straight out of school, with more than 38 years under his belt.
The 56-year-old west Belfast father-of-five — who now has three grandchildren — has said business in booming.
BT has witnessed a strong performance in both its profits, and its turnover, across Ireland. “We have had strong performance, and reported top and bottom line growth...so business is going well in BT Ireland,” he said.
“It’s the same in Northern Ireland, which is good for us.”
It recently negotiated exclusive coverage of all live UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League football matches. And it seems the love of sport has helped bolster BT’s business recently, with revenue across Ireland growing by 14% year-on-year during the second quarter to the end of September.
Alex is responsible for managing the network team across Northern Ireland, from traditional telephone lines to BT’s fibre optic broadband.
“Fibre has been a massive growth area, across the UK, and particularly in Northern Ireland, given our advanced rollout. It’s strong across business and consumers.”
But business groups here have raised concerns over a lack of broadband coverage in some rural areas throughout Northern Ireland.
“There are urban areas where fibre optic wouldn’t be available from BT. There are some blackspots around in most of the counties — in very rural areas is where you would struggle.
“We stand ready to work with Government to deliver broadband to the final 5%.”
He said BT was in the process of completing another extension and rollout to help 45,000 homes and businesses across Northern Ireland.
Despite the industry having changed immensely in 38 years — moving from a time when telephone lines were shared to superfast broadband in the bulk of homes across Northern Ireland — Alex said “it’s still all about communicating”.
He went straight to work for BT, after leaving St Mary’s in west Belfast, following his A-levels.
“I started back in May 1977 as a clerical assistant. The thing I love about it, is having a number of different careers — from billing, IT and engineering.
“When broadband started for example, no one had it. Back in the Seventies, telephone lines were shared. And the majority of businesses had priority when it came to telephone lines being installed, and not everyone had a line. But it’s still all about communicating. And as for superfast broadband in Northern Ireland, it’s just amazing how the appetite has increased over the last three or four years.”
The business has announced several tranches of new jobs over the last year. In September it created 35 new call centre posts at the Flex centre, situated at the Riverside Tower, which provides extra capacity at times of high demand to different parts of the company.
On BT’s expected acquisition of mobile provider EE, Alex said he was confident “it will be a good deal for both”. “It’s only provisional, but on the assumption it goes through I think it will be adding another string to our bow. It’s being able to deliver a perfect bundle to consumers in Northern Ireland. We are clearly excited about the possibility of coming together with EE.”
Increasing broadband speeds is another aim of the company. “A couple of years ago, when we rolled out fibre, we had speed of up to 10mbps. Now we have that up to 300mbps, are we are trialling broadband in Great Britain, which is delivering speeds up to 500mbps.
“We are increasing how to meet the increasing demand, for business and consumers alike.”
BT now provides the broadband and telephone network for some 80 service providers operating throughout Northern Ireland.
And Alex has said the company is now strongly competing with the big names in the multi-channel television world — partly down to it securing the rights to show the Champions League.
Earlier this year, following the launch of the BT Sport Europe channel, the telecoms operator struck a major blow against its main sports television rival Sky Sports by negotiating exclusive coverage of all the live games.
“Gavin (Patterson, BT chief executive) announced in the half year that it was the biggest take up of ads on BT TV, and in line with the business plan,” Alex said.
“But also, the other programmes that we are starting to show. I think, to be honest, it’s been positive across the UK.
“That choice did not exist a number of years ago. And the Champions League has been a big draw.
“I believe we are competing now. When I am meeting people, there’s a high awareness of BT Sport and BT TV.”
BT was has also been at the forefront of the next generation of television, creating the first 4K or Ultra HD channel.
“I think it will eventually go up to 4K, or perhaps virtual reality in the future.”
Looking to the business’s future in the next few years, he said greater broadband speeds and complete network coverage were both on the agenda.
“The Prime Minister introduced a minimum service of 10mbps for everyone, and that will have implications here. It’s fully in line with what BT is planning, and is only a good thing for the economy. Broadband has really helped in Northern Ireland.
“All in all, I think it’s looking well for the future.
“I’m excited about the role my team will play in building out the infrastructure, helping businesses and citizens do business better.”