06 September 2017
| Natalie Bannerman
CenturyLink’s CTO Aamir Hussain speaks to Natalie Bannerman about how he’s ensuring the forthcoming merger with Level 3 will take place without disrupting customers
Aamir Hussain, chief technology officer at CenturyLink, is
described as an executive who led the teams which brought
broadband access to two million homes in rural areas across the
company’s region in the US.
That’s how he was introduced at
Adtran’s Connect event, held in August in
Huntsville, Alabama, where he was described as someone
well-recognised in the industry and a figure central to the
transformation of the business, with a reputation that spoke
CenturyLink is in the final stages of a $34 billion merger
with Level 3 Communications – and so when I met him at
the Adtran event it was CenturyLink’s future
strategy that was the most interest to me. I questioned Hussain
about the plans for the technological integration of the two
companies and what synergies he saw.
But first he addressed over 100 customers and 30 press at
Adtran Connect. He discussed CenturyLink’s current
position as the number three telco in North America. According
to Hussain, today the company has almost 500,000 miles of fibre
connecting roughly 22 million homes and supports 98% of the
world’s Fortune 500 companies.
This year the company has passed about 1.5 million homes
with GPON fibre and 1 million with G.fast copper.
But once the merger with Level 3 is completed "we will
become a worldwide player", says Hussain, "number two in the
world in enterprise". Today 60% of CenturyLink’s
revenues come from enterprise and 40% comes from consumer. Once
the companies merge it’ll be 75% and 25%
But what is the key to dealing with the overlap in
technologies when the two companies merge? "I think
it’s all driven by customer experience and
product," says Hussain. "We have customers who buy services
from both companies. In most cases we are their backup or they
are our backup. Consolidation of product portfolio and
consolidation of customer experience: those are some of the key
principles driving what needs to be done on the network
Instead of a challenge, Hussain sees this as an opportunity.
"We both have lots of customers, and we do not want to disrupt
the customer experience. So we need to make sure we do it in a
way that doesn’t affect the customer and
it’s all seamless to them."
According to Hussain, the company
has identified almost $1 billion worth of synergies –
$125 million in capital expenditure and $800 million to $850
million in operational expenditure, most of which is coming
from the network.
Merging the two networks together is something that will
happen "pretty quickly", he hints, adding: "Both us and Level 3
have a few variations in MPLS backbones, so we have to
consolidate to a single MPLS backbone." Outside the network, he
adds. "As we take our workforce and align our programmes and
products there will also be synergies there. We just need to
execute them to plan".
Without a doubt, network virtualisation is the future of
CenturyLink, says Hussain: "Network virtualisation has become a
reality. Cloud, application and networking have merged." The
company is investing heavily in new technologies and the merger
with Level 3 only increases this need.
Hussain says there will be a "powerful combination" between
CenturyLink and Level 3. "We’ll operate in over 62
countries. We’re not going to put a box in every
country or neighbourhood. We will depend on partnerships to get
local access. But we’ll have a virtual service
that can be provided to customers regardless of where they are
throughout the world."
With the MPLS backbone, "customers get an instant
experience. It’s all sitting on the cloud".
CenturyLink has launched a software-defined wide-area network
(SD- WAN) product. "It was launched within four months from
inception all the way to scale," says Hussain. "We have seen
the biggest pipeline of customers who desire to get on that
network, bigger than any other product I’ve ever
Hussain’s goal is about "building a platform",
he says, "taking our colocation, network, cloud, hosting, and
wrapping it in a whole host of APIs, opening it to our partners
and connecting it to multiple cloud service providers, and then
making it simple to use."
Plans to integrate these ideas into the newly-formed company
with Level 3 have also been considered. Hussain explains that
Level 3 has a new bandwidth on-demand product in the network
virtualisation area. It will "become part of our orchestration
solution for the combined company", says Hussain. "They already
have it and they can already control their networking gear with
it, and now we are going to use that with everything else we do
for our network."
In Hussain’s view, SDN, multi-cloud and
migration to a platform economy are all transformation enablers
for CenturyLink. "At the end of the day, the network is a
platform and on that platform we can provide our own services.
We can open it up to other customers and other partners," he
But that’s only one part of it. When
you’re talking about transforming the customer
experience and providing value for customers and shareholders
this requires cultural transformation, he says.
Proof of concept
"Gone are the days when you would design a service, write
the requirements, do proof of concept, and then
you’d build the product, and take two to three
years to do it," says Hussain.
"Now, every three to six months customers are asking us for
something new. Now we build something called a minimum viable
product. We put stuff out there to a small customer base. We
work with them and co-develop, get their feedback and
reiterate." At the same time he acknowledges that talent is
also different and has been affected by this cultural change.
"Back in the day if something went wrong, we’d
send out a tech engineer. Now it’s all software,"
the CTO adds.
He goes on: "someone is doing it remotely, and we now need a
different skill set within the organisation."
Hussain has two key objectives for the business: "One, get
as much speed out there as possible; and two, transform the
network to a software-defined virtual experience, which really
provides virtualisation to our customer base."
He says innovations like 5G are driving a lot of speed
demand on the network, even though it’s not here
yet. But there is augmented reality and virtual reality, the
internet of things, big data, analytics and other developments
– and 80% of this data is flowing through the
CenturyLink network, says Hussain.
"There will be four billion connected people in the next
five years, and it will take roughly 50 trillion gigabytes to
Meanwhile he recognises a decline in
CenturyLink’s legacy business. "It has been in
decline over the last five or six years," he says. The future
for the company centres on its ability "to grow the strategic
business – MPLS, Ethernet, high-speed data –
at a much faster rate."
CenturyLink has invested roughly $65 billion into its
network over the last 15 years and "every year we invest a
further $3 billion to $5 billion", in order to deliver the
service customers expect, he says.
Of all the plans and strategies Hussain spoke about at the
conference, there’s one overarching message, he
says: "Simplicity will trump everything."
The aim is that CenturyLink’s customers are
accustomed to applications designed with ease of use in mind.
Hussain believes this will be crucial for the business in the
future. "As we consolidate our core infrastructure, as we build
an omni-channel mobile experience, we have lots of things in
place to simplify the network complexity for users," he
"Networks will get more and more complex, but the user
interface will get simpler and simpler, and that’s
what we’re focussing on."
Overall it seems that CenturyLink has put together a
detailed plan for its future, identifying what needs to be
done, where the industry is heading and what its customers
want. It remains to be seen how these plans will unfold,
especially those related to the Level 3 merger. As Hussain
says:"It’s all about execution for us."