Lincolnshire’s Bryn Davies asked the B4RL Facebook group the question: “Will it help us get better broadband into rural areas if BT is split from BT Openreach?”. At the time I posted a quick response to the effect “probably not” but Facebook comments don’t really give the space to properly answer a question like this. So here goes…openreach

There are two parts to my thinking on this – timing and the impact.

If there is will to split Openreach out of BT Group it won’t happen over night – it’s likely to take years, way beyond the current rural broadband policy timescales, and way beyond this parliament. In principle the split would allow an independent Openreach to make independent investment decisions but this will take time to evolve with the BT culture deeply embedded within Openreach veins. It’s likely to take some time post-separation before Openreach starts to think differently, especially as the residual BT Group will remain its biggest customer.

So the first part of my answer is that assuming a split it helpful, it’s likely to require the final 5-10% of the UK to wait a very long time to see the impact.

Once Openreach learns to make strategic decisions in its own newly found image it can’t be assumed that they will be radically different from those of BT Group. Openreach would still be a scale business where exceptions become very costly, very quickly.

The hardest to reach areas are generally exceptions – they are the odds and ends that can’t be delivered using a vanilla national architecture – the long lines, the exchange lines, the poor joints, the low-grade aluminium, etc.

To my thinking these areas will never be addressable by a scale fixed-line operator without ripping up much of its current infrastructure. If the split had been done before BT embarked on a massive deployment of FttC then perhaps things might be different – perhaps – but it wasn’t and Openreach will need to start from where BT Group left off.

There may be very good arguments for splitting Openreach from BT but I very much doubt delivering deeply rural broadband will be one of them.

The final few percent is not about BT – its the domain of the niche specialists.

  1. John Popham says:

    How about if a separated Openreach were radically restructured and made into a body charged with developing a national communications infrastructure along the lines of Network Rail?

    • Adrian Wooster says:

      John, I agree that the “how” is probably more important that the “if” – getting the model wrong could further damage the national infrastructure, cripple the limited market we have, or result in a lot of heartache and cost for very little benefit. Personally, I don’t subscribe to the need for a single national infrastructure provider that relies solely on its scale – if Sweden can cope so can the North East of England. If Openreach were split off, I would ask politicians and Ofcom to at least consider breaking it into regional operators – that way it will develop scale that can reach the difficult corners whilst also being close enough to people to care about them, and be of a scale that will may compete more fairly with the growing competitors. This needs a lot of thought before embarking on the journey – too long for the rural economy.

      • Chris Conder says:

        Not that I know a lot, but I can think. And I think BT will concentrate on content, and eventually morph, leaving openreach to pick up all the pieces. I think they could go bust, because there hasn’t been the investment in the infrastructure for decades. Most people are on very old phone lines. Telegraph poles are wobbly. Trees have grown into lines. Any new deployment of copper (in areas I have seen) is ‘surface mounted’ ie it just trails over fields and hedges and gets grown in. It is not properly buried. Joints in fields where the cable has been broken are left on the surface too. This neglect is due to the fact that the engineers do not have time to do jobs. There is no managment from above. Many great engineers are demoralised but have nowhere to go to complain. The whole infrastructure is pants.
        The only time they up their game is if a community makes a great deal of noise, or comes up with money, or gets an altnet in.
        We have done fibre to the home in our villages ourselves, with no help from government, and now BT come and install a phone cabinet and a fibre cabinet in our little tiny villages. That just proves that they don’t like competition and want to keep the monopoly. Therefore leave openreach alone, let them sort BT wholesale and BT out themselves, and lets help the altnets? Lets build some of the best fibre networks in the world. Openreach et al will then have to up their game. If they don’t, then some of the altnets will get big enough to take it over and do the job properly.
        As long as they can get away with patching up the old copper they will.
        Its only common sense really.

      • Adrian Wooster says:

        I agree – BT are already rapidly becoming a content and services company, and may arguably have used the cashflow freed up by the public investment in infrastructure to accelerate that. My personal theory is that BT perhaps see a break-up as a potential positive move but want the timing to be of their choosing, and not before they have completed the transition.

        I’d argue that BT possibly has too much management rather than too little but the impact is essentially the same except for more expensive reasons. That Gigaclear, B4RN and so on are able to deliver new infrastructure more cheaply is to some extent testament to that.

        The issue of new cabinets appearing in areas with altnets is a different facet of the problem – the lack of effective regulation and oversight both in the UK, locally and in Ofcom, and in the European Commission. Separating Openreach from BT won’t automatically cure that – in fact is may take their eye totally off the ball.

      • Peter says:

        Chris – you need to look at the bigger picture.

        Poles are replaced, look at I have never seen BT cables run over fields and hedges, sounds like a soundbite. Any pictures?

        ”hasn’t been the investment in the infrastructure for decades’. How do you explain the 48 fibres coming into this village?

        You get confused between core networks and the ongoing discussion about the first or last mile. Where is the business case for 100% FTTP to every isolated property? Any telco will only install when there is a profit to be made.

      • Peter says:

        Meanwhile… Will splitting Openreach from BT help deliver rural broadband? Maybe a map showing where speeds are, or will be <xM and the number of properties involved would help show the scale of the problem/opportunity.

        As in the 2 properties down a country lane.

      • Adrian Wooster says:

        Peter, it’s known that in most “local body” areas the scale of the problem is in the order of 5-10% of properties. In many cases the incremental nature of the contracts has lead to a deeply fragmented geography – not everywhere but in many areas. These are broadly speaking the exceptions that don’t readily fit BT’s architecture, and supporting them is likely to create expensive anomalies in BT’s network. If there is a political will to ensure no-one is left behind, which there appears to be, it’s unlikely that BT will be able to play much of a role – especially as they’ve now had three bites at this problem.

  2. Walter G M Willcox says:

    1. It is accepted by BT themselves that they sell VDSL SuperFARCE services without ANY commitment to investigate or improve the service as part of its installation. Hence the BT Wholesale checker provides Range A and Range B impacted estimates. Most ISPs won’t entertain any remedial work appointment unless the speeds obtained are substantially below the minimum Range B estimate, unless there is demonstrable crackle etc on a PSTN Voice service.

    2. It is quite obvious that an age-hardened corroded old aluminium alloy cable loses far more of its workable diameter than the equivalent copper one. As higher frequency signals only travel effectively in a very small surface layer of a conductor and VDSL signals will suffer significantly more degradation. If the UK is to be lumbered with the continuing use of such twisted pairs, then there must be a very expensive replacement programme which should already be well underway. This situation is seriously exacerbated due to the money-saving practice of laying phone cables directly in the ground rather than in ducts; thus making it far more risky to excavate live services. No such replacement programme has been announced nor does it seem that regulatory bodies are prepared to tackle this very nasty situation.

    3. Further facets of the current impasse can be found here:-

    4. It may well be that altnets providing far better (cheaper and faster symmetric) and more reliable services may eventually force Public Servants to serve the public and cease supporting the incumbent who is demonstrably failing to provide e.g. “We are the proud guardians of the nations local access network loop, sometimes referred to as the ‘first mile’.” (2009 BT Openreach slogan on their web site.)

    3. It is obvious that UK Plc is heading for serious

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