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Innovation Briefing Issue 7 | Circuit Breakers Yard

  • 7 minute read
  • Published by Crispin Moller on 30 Nov 2021
  • Last modified 30 Nov 2021
Making good use of the things that we find is the mission for DTC Telecom which puts the ECO into Telecoms.

Speaking to James Norden at DTC telecom is unlike a conversation with anyone else in IT. While others might talk about megabytes and megahertz, he talks about tonnes.

“We pulled 170 tonnes of equipment out of one customer; it was running but no traffic was going through it. We saved them £2m a year on electricity”.

James Norden at DTC telecom

DTC’s main business is decommissioning telecoms networks. The equipment it extracts from the operator may be sold as a whole network to another telco, or piecemeal as individual pieces of equipment. Or broken down as spares or for recycling. The aim is to find value in everything, and even if parts don’t have a value, to ensure that they are disposed of in an environmentally responsible way.

“There are three aspects to the business,” Norden explains. “Aftermarket sales, which comprises of legacy equipment supply and repairs. Technical Services; which includes consultancy, technical engineering and project management. Reverse Logistics; equipment recovery from all over the world, complex logistics, monetisation of the material and recycling.” The aftermarket sales side of the business allows companies to beef up their telecommunications and datacentre infrastructure without paying the new retail price for the equipment. Not all of the equipment DTC sells is used – some will have been spares that were kept and never installed. Some will be end of line kit from manufacturers inventory and some, like a lot of Huawei, will have been delivered to operators, can’t be installed and is now looking for a new home overseas. The latter is comprised of base stations, antennas, microwave equipment, and complete fixed networks.

The global chip shortage has hit the industry, and caused long lead times on orders for new equipment. “Some of the OEMs are quoting over a year and out to supply parts”, says Norden.

This has drawn companies who would never have thought of purchasing second-hand equipment to knock on DTC’s door.

Norden is surprised by how new much of the equipment DTC extracts is. While much of the technology ages badly, apparatus such as racking systems, power supplies and cooling, that has breen kept in a pristine data centre often emerges in excellent condition. Norden laments the wastage.

“We pulled 250 perfect racks out of a bank. We could sell some of them, but most went for aluminium recycling”, he notes. He says that the DTC warehouses, located not far from Oxford, store equipment that would have cost billions of pounds when new.

Keep on running

DTC’s legacy business allows companies to keep their networks running long after the original manufacturer has stopped supporting their hardware – much like a shop which sells typewriter ribbons, or reel to reel tapes. The recent “Organising for Digital Delivery” document, an independent report commissioned by the Cabinet Office and DCMS, reported that as much as half of government’s £4.7bn IT spending is directed to keeping old systems alive. For some businesses, the ability to keep their systems supplied with spares is a lifeline, and that’s where the repairs come in. DTC-Telecom will also fix ancient technology, giving it a longer lease of life. Some clients use DTC for predictive sourcing, being on the lookout for spares which may be needed in the future.

“There are stories about circuits going down and people paying £10,000 or £20,000 pounds for a network card that would otherwise be available for £1,200, except there was only one available on that given day. We might have an arrangement with a supplier where every time they can supply us a card at less than $250 we’ll buy it rather than going to the market when it’s needed,” says Norden.

Hayley Hayward, DTC telecom’s Global Account Manager is the person charged with locating equipment for clients and finding clients for equipment, “I’ve got one customer who is after some test kit and am looking to place some esoteric parts such as a Ciena NTK539UE 100Gb optical networking card which is used to drive subsea cables. New, it has a list price of over $1m”.

DTC has some sensitive geo-political issues to consider. The company is removing Nokia, Ericsson and Siemens equipment from installations in China, equipment which will be superseded by Huawei kit. It’s also extracting Huawei equipment from networks in Western countries, to be replaced with Scandinavian apparatus. And this can lead to confusion.

When new equipment goes on site, it’s unpacked, and normally, the old kit is put back in the boxes used to transport the new. When those new boxes with the old parts arrive, they could easily confuse the DTC warehouse. The company is savvy to this, and Norden points out that using the packaging ensures that the second-hand equipment arrives in good shape. He says that they encourage the re-use of the packaging, to ensure that it’s either reused or disposed of ethically by DTC Telecom.

Second life

The warehouses at DTC-Telecom are huge. The tonnes Norden speaks of are here: palletised and stacked, cabinets, switches and cells. As we wander through, some engineers are assembling an order for a customer: finding cables for equipment which is being shipped out to Turkey. Our visit triggers a minor panic as the photographer’s flash in the warehouse causes a moment of alarm.

In the warehouse you can sense opportunity. If only the equipment could find a home, it could be alive again. It somehow doesn’t feel right that it’s lying dormant and not living out its purpose. Peering at the labels we find lots of Ericsson 2G, 3G and 4G equipment, all perfectly good but superseded by newer generations.

And then there is the part of

the estate where electronics go to die. Men with the skill of Fugu chefs disassemble unsaleable equipment to extract tiny amounts of gold and copper, and place the parts in huge buckets.

Recycling gold is often cited as the reason recovery businesses thrive but Norden explains that the quantity is minimal. It may take three years to have enough to merit processing. Aluminium and stainless steel are retrieved in larger quantities, to be sent off to Sheffield for re-smelting.

We walk back to the main building past a couple of phone boxes with the logos which would be familiar to anyone holidaying in the Caribbean. Norden explains that shipping them back is a balance of ecology and economics. It’s not financially the right thing to do, as they have next to no value, but if they had been left, they would probably have gone to landfill. DTC prefers to leave the sites that it’s stripped out as clean as it can.

The contrast as we enter the offices is striking. This is home to a row of 19-inch racks filled with equipment, and humming away. It’s a live datacentre, and it’s where DTC evaluates and tests the equipment. This building operates a full private network, thanks to the help of Telco Electronics, one of the participants in the DCMS Rural Connected Communities project. This network does not provide any coverage – it uses dummy loads rather than full antennas – but this allows DTC to make sure that the equipment that it’s received is working. Equipment sourced through the used equipment marketplace is expected to arrive tested with a report. If it’s come from an end user, such as a mobile network, the pricing reflects a perceived failure rate, and so DTC will take it on consignment. It then acts as an agent on a revenue share agreement to sell it on, rather than buying it in. Even recycling gives the seller a good rate of return.

Buying telecoms equipment by the tonne might be an odd metric, but DTC makes it feel not just sensible, but virtuous. While much of technology is about looking to the future, it’s reassuring to know that looking after the technology of the past also finds a place.