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The rise and rise of Peter Cochrane

Former BT CTO gives forth

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Peter CochraneTechScape Peter Cochrane started out digging ditches for a living, before what could be described as a meteoric rise to CTO of BT.

Born in 1946, in Nottinghamshire, Dr Cochrane left school with what he terms "little education" and started digging ditches for the Post Office.

From the age of 11 he admits to "a green-fingered interest in electronics, building amplifiers and radios". He even turned the garden shed into a "radio shack".

While at the Post Office, Cochrane "started getting into telephone exchanges". This spurred him to attend technical college, followed by embarking on a university degree.

Though he returned for a brief stint at the Post Office, Cochrane then joined BT, before another period of study where he completed a Masters degree and PhD. His PhD, in radio systems, wire-line systems and the social consequences of technology, was under the mentorship of Essex telecommunications professor Ken Cattermore, who set up the world's first MSc in Telecommunications.

The focus of Cochrane's PhD work was the long-distance transmission of data over coaxial cables - "a course so specific and obscure, nobody taught it". He had to do all his research independently. "My PhD said to BT, "stop investing in copper, stop laying copper wires and get into fiber optic lines".

At that time (1979), Cochrane had befriended BT chairman Sir George Jefferson. "One afternoon over coffee, he made the decision to do it," he says.

BT's network consisted of a repeater station every 40km then a repeater in the ground every 2.2km - requiring huge amounts of staff to check, operate and maintain.

The continued cost of copper was something no organisation could bear: BT was spending more than £1bn per year in installing copper into its network, Cochrane says, and the £6bn cost of installing a fiber optic network was the most sensible long-term business option.

"BT was the first in the world to start this massive infrastructure changeover. Six years later we had put fiber throughout the BT network, quite an accomplishment; however, 80,000 people retired early and/or moved on."

He says the downsizing was "one of the most successful in history". When BT started it had more than 242,000 employees; afterwards, it levelled off at 110,000.

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