Interview with BAI Communications' Brendan O’Reilly
Q&A with the recently appointed group chief technology officer
Based in London, Brendan O’Reilly joined BAI communications (BAI) in March this year with the focus on accelerating the expansion of BAI’s neutral host solutions and magnifying its strengths as a telecommunications infrastructure service provider.
“First and foremost, however, I want to make a significant contribution to enabling the business to deliver for its customers in their new, as well as existing, pursuits,” O'Reilly said. “Our customers are in a fast-changing market and need to adapt and provide great service quickly and we can help them achieve this. Through this work, I want to place BAI at the head of thought leadership in the 5G space.”
Critical Comms sent Brendan some questions on his past, present and future.
Firstly, please tell us about yourself and your background.
I joined BAI from Telefónica where I worked for 17 years, most recently as the chief technology officer for O2’s UK operation for six years where I was responsible for O2’s strategy, design, planning, test, delivery and operation of the entire mobile and fixed network, messaging and Wi-Fi. I was supported by a team of more than 700 professional engineers who helped me lead the development of O2’s network share partnership with Vodafone, O2’s fastest 4G deployment in the UK and the recent launch of its 5G network.
What I do professionally is very much a part of delivering the best customer experience, which is at the heart of how I work, knowing that the people in my team and the other teams I’m part of are key to achieving this. I’m a strong advocate for the people with whom I work, and I actively support their development and self-learning.
BAI is an Australian company but with interests around the world, is that the best way of describing it? In which countries do you operate?
I would describe BAI Communications as a global team of telecommunications engineering experts and technology innovators that partners with public and private enterprise to design, build and operate highly customised and future-ready, cellular, Wi-Fi, broadcast, radio and IP networks.
Our global operation spans North America, United Kingdom and Hong Kong as well as Australia and specialises in delivering complex transit and telecommunications solutions — putting cellular, wireless and Wi-Fi networks in challenging and confined environments. In fact, we’re an industry leader in providing 5G ready, futureproofed, neutral host wireless and fibre-optic services tailored to suit the local environment.
This capability sees us responsible for significant infrastructure projects that deliver cellular and Wi-Fi coverage in the major cities of New York, Toronto and Hong Kong. Our connectivity solutions are also relied on by emergency services teams across New South Wales and public transit emergency services in New York and Toronto. In the UK, BAI is combining its global expertise with local in-depth knowledge to work with industry leaders and explore the role of technology including the upgrade to 5G.
In the UK, BAI is rapidly building its team and making a significant investment in its UK operation, underlining its long-term commitment to the UK and intent to expand its European presence in coming years. Our operation in each market is led by a team of senior executives also charged with expanding our footprint in Europe and North America.
Can you give us a brief history of the company — where/how it started and its evolution into the present company?
Over the past two decades, since privatisation in 1999 and sale to Macquarie Bank in 2002, acquisitions and organic growth have led to BAI’s business expansion around the world, leveraging our expertise and capability to design, build and operate communications infrastructure in complex environments. Since 2009 Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPP Investments) has been BAI’s majority shareholder and a trusted long-term investor that actively invests in infrastructure assets around the world; plus a strong supporter of BAI’s evolution.
A large part of our growth and acquisition to date has been focused on North America. In 2010, BAI acquired a majority stake in Transit Wireless to design, build and operate communications infrastructure in the New York subway in a public-private partnership with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). In 2012 a contract to build two ground-stations to provide wideband satellite services for the Department of Defence and an exclusive long-term contract with the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) cemented our presence in Canada.
We have also grown in the Asian market through acquisition of Hong Kong-based Radio Frequency Engineering (RFE) in 2007, which has seen our strong relationship with the MTR Corporation flourish since. Our newest office in London, which we opened in 2016, underlines BAI’s long-term commitment to the UK and desire to expand its European presence in coming years.
However, BAI’s heritage lies in Australia with decades of expertise in building, operating and maintaining towers for broadcasting operations, even though today the company is very much a global one. BAI began operating a century ago by transmitting ABC radio programs and now provides television and radio broadcasting services to most Australians. Having evolved from a local broadcaster to a global communications infrastructure provider, BAI Communications is well placed to deliver on the goals and growth trajectory set out in the global strategy by Group CEO Igor Leprince last year.
What are your main operations (and clients, if you can mention them) in Australia?
We provide services to all major TV and radio broadcasters in the country. In fact, BAI operates one of the most extensive broadcast networks in the world across more than 700 sites in Australia and is the largest and only truly national broadcast network in the country. We provide over 2000 fully managed television and radio broadcast services, delivering about 130 million broadcasting hours to 99% of the population as well as providing tower and fibre co-location services for mobile network operators (MNOs) and other service providers, enterprise and public sector customers. In times of crisis, such as natural disasters, national broadcasters rely on BAI to maintain their connection with Australians and emergency services rely on us to help keep them informed. Additionally, in NSW, we also operate and maintain the New South Wales Government’s Public Safety Network for the NSW Telco Authority (NSWTA).
Decades-long contracts with national public broadcasters ABC and SBS have seen BAI manage the Australian transition from analog to digital television, among other broadcast milestones. Throughout that transition, we worked together with the broadcast industry to provide spectrum-planning advice to the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Today, we are applying our expertise to develop the broadcast and telecommunications networks of the future; for example, bringing the first 4K television broadcasting trials to Australia.
During 2019, we were delighted to forge long-term agreements with Australian commercial broadcasters Network 10 and Southern Cross Austereo (SCA). Additionally, we acquired SCA’s broadcast transmission network as part of our long-term managed services agreement to broadcast free-to-air-television and radio services across Australia.
Most recently, in November last year, the Australian Communications and Media Authority granted BAI a carrier licence, laying the groundwork for expanding our outdoor neutral host solutions and bolstering our strength in broadcasting. As the holder of a carrier licence in Australia, BAI Communications can host and carry services on behalf of the MNOs from our infrastructure that is proactively maintained and upgraded when necessary.
What are your main operations (and clients, if you can mention them) in other countries?
BAI Communications’ global expertise is in providing neutral host communications infrastructure for large-scale transit systems below and above ground and to MNOs delivering network connectivity to their customers in those challenging environments. Additionally, BAI’s data engineering capabilities are great credentials for us to help our partners harness 5G, IoT, AI and cutting-edge data analytics to build the private networks, stations and cities of the future.
BAI has designed and installed and owns and operates cellular and Wi-Fi infrastructure for the TTC, which operates the Toronto subway, and the MTA in New York, which operates the New York City subway. Our MNO customers in the New York City subway and Toronto subway environments include AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless and Freedom Mobile. In Hong Kong, BAI designs, builds, installs and maintains communications systems for the Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway on behalf of the MTR Corporation and works closely with the Hong Kong government on projects including the upgrade of fire and police services’ radio systems and re-broadcasting systems in car tunnels, as well as the integrated cellular network in the central government office complex.
Can you describe some stand-out projects BAI has been involved in in recent years?
BAI’s impressive track record for completing projects on time and under budget, from large-scale infrastructure to supporting applications, is a stand-out in and of itself. However, its skill and experience in delivering the next wave of connectivity solutions for MNOs, broadcasters, transit operators and governments — that is our differentiator.
In the US, Transit Wireless has designed, built, owns and operates one of the largest neutral-host wireless networks in the world within the New York City subway system. Our infrastructure supports secure private networks, public safety and transit communications, as well as public Wi-Fi, cellular and broadband wireless. Transit Wireless also provides MNOs with cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity for their customers across large infrastructure projects, including the New York City subway system. Numerically speaking, it provides 160 miles of fibre to service 283 underground stations on 22 subway lines, serving about 5.3 million riders on any given weekday.
Transit Wireless is the exclusive long-term provider contracted to finance, design, build and maintain the public Wi-Fi in all New York City underground stations. This state-of-the-art network covers 243 square miles with a 160-mile fibre-optic backbone, 5000 Wi-Fi access points and a distributed antenna system (DAS) with over 7000 antennas, making it one of the world’s largest DAS and Wi-Fi systems. Across New York, Transit Wireless has five data centres built to run the cellular and Wi-Fi network, optimised for edge computing and ready to take on future 5G developments. Thus, with our 27-year contract, we are in a unique position to help usher in smart city technology as 5G evolves.
In Hong Kong, BAI digitally enables 2 billion underground passenger rides every year across the 218-kilometre metropolitan network, which is one of the world’s busiest rapid transit railway systems. The driverless train applications that we support have the capability and connectivity to transmit real-time video surveillance of carriages to a remote-control centre and real-time data and alarms are carried by the MNO 4G network as well as the private track-to-train wireless network we built.
In Toronto, one of our more recent projects has seen BAI develop and implement a data analytics solution that provides insights into foot traffic and crowding conditions throughout the subway system. These insights help the TTC identify and manage overcrowding more effectively, which enables better resource allocation and improves incident response times — proactively resolving issues before conditions become hazardous. Obtaining a complete view of the subway’s day-to-day usage helps the TTC make better informed transit planning decisions. Our communications infrastructure network includes Wi-Fi, cellular and IP connectivity that covers all 75 subway stations, backed by 75 km of fibre optics deployed throughout the TTC subway system. This network also provides connectivity for various applications including connectivity services for 1600 PRESTO fare payment devices.
Back in Australia, our work for the Public Safety Network (PSN) sees us managing more than 200 sites nationally to facilitate communication among emergency services as well as transport, energy and environment services providers. The PSN is one of the world’s largest government radio networks. It already covers approximately 325,000 square kilometres and is further expanding its footprint to increase the shared coverage for government agencies and essential services to cover 85% of the state and 98% of the population.
Through these and other projects we’re working on around the world, we’re proud to be helping our customers uncover connectivity solutions that create new opportunities and improve operational efficiency, thereby enabling them to direct more focus and resources towards business imperatives.
Which current or future technologies is BAI focused on capitalising upon? Eg, 5G, Wi-Fi 6?
5G will be the key driver of development for industry 4.0, significantly increasing uptake in many applications that will see businesses and government enterprises worldwide make significant progress in their digital transformation. Emerging technology such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, machine learning and data analytics is maturing, and we can now achieve even more with this computing power using 5G’s speed, latency and capacity. 5G is expanding opportunities for enterprise and industry all over the world and we expect to see technology increasingly scaled by organisations to improve their operations and customer experience.
As this happens, enterprises will increasingly, and more swiftly, need the infrastructure capable of supporting the connectivity requirements and as a communications infrastructure provider it’s exciting to be at the forefront of delivering the next generation of connectivity solutions that can help realise those opportunities. However, this comes with considerable direct and opportunity cost across a variety of resources.
At the start of this value chain, MNOs are expanding their 5G capability and services to capitalise on increasing demand from industry and governments to help drive transformation within their own markets and organisations, including smart cities. However, the investment to roll out 5G networks is significant, especially when you account for the highly specialised skills and experience necessary to ensure success. Furthermore, the return on investment depends on managing capital and scarce resources at both an operational and investment level. This is extremely complicated and therefore very difficult to make it a viable and workable prospect — unless it’s your speciality.
This where the neutral host model presents significant advantage. At the end of the day, it is similar to various network sharing initiatives that exist in several forms in most of the world and an area in which BAI specialises. With end-to-end responsibility for shared networks as our strength, we have a suite of 5G neutral host connectivity offerings to help customers manage 5G deployment effectively. So, we’ve found that MNOs are responding very positively to the possibility of working with neutral hosts like ourselves. They understand the value we bring and expect us to play a bigger role in rolling out mobile infrastructure in the next few years.
Digital cities are the next big thing — is BAI aiming to be heavily involved in this sector?
Smart cities have been gaining traction in recent years and will continue to do so now that 5G is becoming more widely available. As experts in communications infrastructure, smart cities are an area BAI is passionate about exploring and contributing to. BAI’s network and infrastructure services support the connectivity demands of a smart city to be able to meet the needs and vision of the government and the private sector.
BAI is already deploying transformative technologies and smart applications in the cities where we currently operate. We’ve talked about Toronto’s data analytics and Hong Kong’s driverless train applications, and in New York city, Transit Wireless helped install countdown clocks which track train arrival and departures to provide real-time updates for passengers. Within the smart city space, we are developing solutions that range from smart CCTV combined with artificial intelligence to help increase safety and security around stations, to smart ticketing and digital payments to help reduce congestion and detect fare evasion.
There is also a great opportunity for cities to think about how they use their streetscape, their street furniture and their assets, and get neural host providers like BAI to come and play a much bigger role in the rollout of those networks, while being able to support the MNOs as they roll out 5G for their customers. This opportunity to create a backbone of wired and wireless infrastructure in a neutral host format will enable 5G-related initiatives and use cases for cities, as well as making them financially viable.
There has been a flurry of announcements of executive appointments recently. Does this signify that BAI is expanding?
As we continue to win new projects and technology continues to evolve rapidly, we are seeing increasing demand for our services around the world and have forecast a growth trajectory for BAI that is built into our 2025 global strategy. To meet current demand and the anticipated future need for our solutions in coming years, we have been assembling industry leaders to bring their knowledge and expertise to the company’s operations and innovation.
A recent press release remarked upon “BAI’s ambitious growth strategy as the business looks to aggressively scale its solutions and operations over the next four years, particularly across its existing geographies: Europe, North America, and Australia.” Are you able to give any information about the growth plans?
BAI’s Group CEO, Igor Leprince, who joined the company last year, has some very ambitious plans to grow the wireless infrastructure business of the company across the broader public transport sector from a vertical market perspective as well as private networks horizontally. Igor’s plans are to grow by increasing BAI’s core infrastructure footprint, but also by adding applications for enterprise customers to that core infrastructure. To achieve this, the business is pursuing organic opportunities, but Igor’s team is also considering strategic acquisitions over the next few years.
Finally, what haven't we asked? What other points would you like to make?
Over the last 12 months the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated just how quickly we can adapt to new technologies and has also heightened how much we rely on technology and communication systems to live and work. BAI is in a unique position to provide the infrastructure solutions many government and private authorities and operators are increasingly needing to be able to continue operating effectively and efficiently. It’s an exciting period of innovation for telecommunications and many other industries, and it’s great to see companies like BAI leading the charge to effect the change and improvement that comes with it.
Working with a charity they are installing internet in the major ports of Australia.
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To ensure trust industry and government must work together.