BT's new innovation strategy - including its 21st century network - will get new products out quicker and avoid costly mistakes, said its chief technology officer on Friday.

"BT has been an innovator for a long time," said Matt Bross, who joined BT from Williams Communications in 2002. "But the innovations have been monetised somewhere else." Like many a large-company CTO, he says his job is to make his customers' lives better.

Bross's idea is to make research more open, to do more of it in collaboration, and to link it more closely into product cycles that actually address users' needs. New products will reach the market in 18 months, instead of three years, he claimed.

BT's 21st century network (21CN) - a wholesale upgrade of its core network - is an example, he said. BT has adopted the mobile industry's 3GPP standards, but extended them and fed its ideas back into the industry rather than keep them to itself: "If you push it back out into a global standards body, you can buy it back in, on world-class economies of scale." Openness means that companies that tender for 21CN contracts are given information about the whole project, not just their part of it, improving their understanding of the project, he said.

BT's services are now put together using Web service-based building blocks, so that the company no longer creates multiple instances of billing systems, or other functions. "There were 50 billing systems in BT Global Services," said Brian Levy, group technology officer at BT, who led the web services project.

Research and investment are tied more closely to recognisable customer demands, which will help avoid mistakes, he said, including any future repetition of the 3G debacle, where BT got into crippling debt buying spectrum rights that are still very far from paying for themselves.

"When I arrived, BT was engaged in debt reduction," said Bross, crediting Ben Verwaayen and Ian Livingston, chief executive of BT Retail with handling the "challenge associated with the bubble bursting."

Could BT's current innovation strategy have avoided that mess? "Absolutely yes," Bross told Techworld. "This innovation strategy will help us place our investment in growth areas."

The over-valuation of 3G licences was also due to the over-heated atmosphere of the times, he said: "BT clearly had its balance sheet over-streteched for the market that emerged."

Unlike the 3G licence fiasco, the 21CN is an effort to provide more cost-effective services, and make BT's offering broader, allowing services like the metropolitan Ethernet offering launched last week.