CTO gears up for powerful combination of CenturyLink and Level 3

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

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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 for itself.

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% respectively.

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 side." 

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."

P31According 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 built." 

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 says.

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."

Virtual reality P31 quotes.

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 support that."

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 says. 

"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." 

Topics: CenturyLink, Level 3, merger, wholesale telecom, Capacity media