put the open in openreach

If like me you’ve spent years in the IT industry, you’ll have no doubt had to dabble in telecoms. As such you’ll have a few choice words to say about BT, indeed any telecommunications provider. We all have our opinions on BT, but things have really changed since 2006 when through a competition ruling BT span out the company that owned its infrastructure and ‘last mile’ connectivity to a separate company to allow all telecommunications providers access to its infrastructure.

For a while this worked well, I actually thought for a while things were getting better – I actually saw a few apprentices being trained up and the quality of the work got better. That didn’t last for long before the battles started. BT is one of the most process driven organisations in the UK, the way it controls the tasks that its workforce is actually pretty amazing – although like any organisation that puts business process before customer satisfaction – it’s lost the plot of what it’s supposed to be doing…

I write this having waited around 9 months for a leased line to be delivered to a job I’m managing. Openreach are amongst the prime culprits – there are other difficulties involved and to be honest, in my youth I’d have fired off an email to the Chairman’s Office in BT, used a few minor swear-words and someone senior would have got the problem fixed a short while later. Thinking about it, I’m not sure why I haven’t done that yet but maybe old age and apathy have set in or maybe I’m really starting to feel sorry for the Openreach employees.

As a business they’re not quite BT and certainly not independent. OFCOM and OFT have a once in a generation opportunity to do something good with BT’s current acquisition of quadruple play operator EE and make the situation better than it’s ever been.

BT combined with EE is going to be a huge business and owning Openreach is becoming less relevant to them as a business – it is time to spin out Openreach and allow it to be a truly open access business focused on the technology and innovation in telecommunications.

Given all the problems so many of us have with Openreach and the structure of the actual infrastructure, the wires, the fibres, the street cabinets and the complexity of managing all that sometimes aging copper wire in an aging country – they need a focus and leadership that can take them forward.

I really believe that Openreach as a former national asset should be taken back into state ownership. I’m not a red, blue or yellow by the way. It seems the most sensible option that after all the money the EU and the Government is pouring into faster broadband subsidies we should treat Openreach like we do Network Rail or the Highways Agency, rather than the money going back to BT Group’s shareholders. If you want to have an information superhighway and give open access for operators to make the most of that it has to be a company limited by guarantee and not for profit.

This will allow us to compete with countries like Sweden and South Korea allowing all profits to be continuously be reinvested back into the actual infrastructure, buying and upgrading the equipment in the street boxes and exchanges at a much faster rate than ever before.

Sat within BT at present it’s placed with invisible walls to prevent collusion between Openreach and BT Retail, it’s a heavily regulated part of the business and ultimately held at arm’s length by BT Management. The increasing use of contractors that I’ve covered before in this blog is also not really helping us train new apprentices in the dark arts of telecommunications infrastructure.

Anyone who’s sat around waiting for a line to be installed (hopefully not like my nine months… and counting) will probably all share my opinion that BT simply does not care that the service is bad and they’re interested in marketing and selling things with fancy adverts and free BT Sport. How things work… well that’s someone else’s problem.

Most UK telecommunications companies do suffer this syndrome, O2 being another. I sincerely hope that there are some people with strategic brains out there and realise that the assets of Openreach whilst BT may see these as a liability and expense, are what we need as a country to compete on a world stage. Let’s give them some focus and let’s fuel competition by opening them up to all providers whilst still ensuring a continual investment in them.

Whilst I don’t believe my words will ever be read by anyone who counts. I do want to say this – I’ve never met a bad Openreach engineer. I’ve spoken to plenty of useless Openreach managers on the phone, had useless project managers organise someone to turn up with a Network Terminating box before the cable has been ran. However, every guy and on occasion, girl who has turned up has done so against some pretty strict processes and done their best despite them. I’ve always offered them a cup of tea and I’ve probably learnt most of what I know about the UK telecoms industry directly from them.

Let’s hope our esteemed government agencies make the right decision…

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