Big Interview

‘Great things’ in store for Colt as ex-CTO of XO joins

Randy Nicklas, vice president of engineering, is one of Carl Grivner’s new team at Colt. Alan Burkitt-Gray asks how he plans to ensure Colt continues doing ‘great things’

Whether you’re in London or Berlin, Singapore or Tokyo or Hong Kong, Colt’s intention is that wholesale and enterprise customers should have the same look and feel across all of them. 

The company, which is celebrating its 25th birthday, now uses the IQ Network brand for its operations, says Randy Nicklas, new vice president of engineering. 

“IQ Net is all about delivering higher bandwidth services to enterprise and wholesale customers,” he says. “It’s not just Europe, it’s Singapore and Hong Kong and Japan. IQ Net in Asia and Europe is configured the same way and has the same set of systems.”

Optimised network 

Colt describes IQ Network as “a 100Gbps optimised network distributed to 800+ data centres and carrier hotels around the world”, optimised for software-defined networks (SDNs), network functions virtualisation (NFV) and cloud services. 

Nicklas has just joined Colt at its London head office, having previously spent three years as CTO of Windstream in the US and, before that, 14 years as CTO of XO Communications. He’s settled in already, he says. “I joined Colt at the end of July. I’ve rented a flat and put down some roots,” he says. “But I’ve known of Colt for years. XO is very analogous to Colt in Europe.” 

Colt’s network extends to the US, but Nicklas didn’t list North America among the IQ Net locations. “IQ Net is not yet in the US,” he says. Does that mean it will? “I hope so,” he says … followed by a long pause. “Let me just stop there.” Then another pause. “There are some opportunities in North America and the US in particular. Stay tuned.” With that, he will say no more on the subject. 

Nicklas started in software development and systems engineering with NASA and Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC), and moved to telecoms with Intelsat and MCI before XO, mainly around the Washington area until the move to Windstream in Arkansas. 

So why the move across the Atlantic after a career of more than three decades in the US? He clearly knows the US market well. As an aside, Verizon bought XO’s fibre network earlier this year for €1.8 billion; it’s off the market. 

“The opportunity came up and I’ve never worked overseas before,” he says. And the presence of Grivner, who came to Colt two years ago as executive vice president of network services before being promoted to CEO in January last year, probably has something to do with it. “I worked for Carl at XO,” he says. Nicklas was CTO at XO for the whole of Grivner’s eight-year spell as CEO. 

Fibre pioneer in London 

He admires his new company. “Colt has done some very interesting things. There are some new leaders here, doing interesting things,” he says. 

“I enjoy building a network, using new technology. Colt has always been an early adopter of telecoms technology. That’s the reason I’m here.” Colt is “further down the line” in network transformation. The company has long been a leader, Nicklas recalls, since the days in 1992 when it pioneered fibre around the City of London. He has clearly been briefed well on how Colt originally stood for “City of London Telecommunications”, before spreading out across Europe to build long-distance and metro networks. 

Asian expansion 

Backed by the Fidelity pensions group since the start, Colt took over Fidelity’s Japanese telecoms business KVH in 2014 for $100 million. The former KVH, now operating under the Colt name, has networks in four Asian markets: Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea.  

Following the deal, Colt launched its IP access service in Singapore a year ago, adding to a range of other offers the company has in the country. 

Colt said at the time that its coverage extends to approximately 90% of commercial buildings in Singapore.

At the start of this year the carrier said it will enhance the Colt IQ Network using both optical and Ethernet architecture to offer high-bandwidth services to major buildings and data centres across Asia.

In Singapore, the investment will include a large-scale expansion of its existing coverage, while it will also begin digging projects to prepare for its IQ Network fibre deployment.

Colt said in January that the expansion will make it the only provider to have a fully-owned fibre metro network in key Asian cities, such as Tokyo, Osaka and Singapore, as well as European locations.

Colt also pledged to augment Asian investments by adding key submarine cable routes to its backbone to boost the reliability of its network.

Close observers of Colt will also notice a huge turnaround in the company’s spirit, particularly since Grivner become CEO. In 2015 Fidelity bought the one-third of Colt it did not already own for £569 million, and said, intriguingly, “Fidelity has committed to holding its investment in Colt and not to sell or take any other steps to dispose of its Colt shares to any third party prior to 31 December 2016.”

That hinted that on or after 1 January 2017 it retained the right to sell its 25-year investment. But in mid-January this year, in response to a question from Capacity, Grivner told me: “Colt continues to have strong support from its ownership and I can confirm with you that there are no plans to sell Colt.” And a couple of months earlier, with Fidelity’s backing, the company moved into a new HQ near London’s so-called Silicon Roundabout. 

Now the focus is on Ethernet services on fibre. “Here at Colt it’s all fibre. We never had that legacy [technology],” says Nicklas. “We put fibre into London. The fibre has evolved over 25 years and so has the opto-electronics.

The bandwidth that can be delivered over today’s fibre and today’s opto-electronics has crept up to 100Gbps and 200 or 400Gbps are on the way. “And there’s more to come. All of this high bandwidth has to be delivered in Ethernet. Others stop at 40Gbps,” he says. 

Not all customers want the high speeds that today’s technology permits, he notes. “The sweet spot is the higher-speed handoffs,” but CFOs of customers will be wary of signing up to more bandwidth than they need. Even though “we have a full portfolio of enterprise telecommunications services, fully VoIP”, it’s important to be able to handle earlier generations. “Can we handle TDM? Yes. But we can put in an interface and it becomes VoIP internally to us.”

What the future looks like

“We want our customers to understand what the future looks like – and not just the future, but today. Voice is still important to everybody. Do we still have older equipment? Yes, we do, but some we’ve stopped. We want to fully leverage our investment. We have the ability to deliver outstanding quantities of bandwidth,” he says. 

“We are strong believers in Ethernet services. We’re right at the leading edge of Carrier Ethernet.” Colt supports the work of MEF – formerly known as the Metro Ethernet Forum. “All our Ethernet platforms are Carrier Ethernet 2.0,” he adds. “The overall picture is that telecommuni-cations services are going to involve Ethernet, and that’s where our focus is. “And now people are talking about Ethernet functionality with very high bandwidth, in the optical transport layer,” says Nicklas.

Fast speeds are vital for data centres that are used for cloud services, he notes. “Back in 2015 Colt launched dedicated cloud access to the principal data centres. We’re taking it to a new level with IQ Net. Colt helps cloud providers build their backbones. We are in the engine room to help provide these very large cloud networks.”

So, after a few weeks, how’s he settling into London? “I grew up in New York,” he says. “London is in the same category.” And he is unfazed by the technology. “There’s no regionalisation of technologies. I haven’t seen anything that’s different here. Our partners operate on a global basis and I haven’t seen anything that I haven’t seen before.” 

Over its 25-year history, “Colt has done great things”, he says. Nicklas wants to make sure Colt continues that tradition.