Ofcom
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Plans to make digital communications work for everyone

  • Openreach should become a distinct company, with its own Board
  • BT prepares to open up its network to competitors
  • Progress on better quality of service for all telecoms customers

Ofcom has yesterday announced detailed plans to make digital communications work for everyone - including major reform of Openreach, the network division of BT.

In February, Ofcom outlined measures to help make the UK a world-leading digital economy over the next ten years and beyond, by delivering a step-change in telecoms services for everyone.

These plans focused on a more independent Openreach; greater choice of broadband networks, including fibre connections to homes and offices; better quality of service across the whole industry; and better broadband and mobile coverage for people and businesses.

Ofcom has yesterday announced progress in these areas.

An Openreach that works for everyone

Openreach is the part of BT Group that develops and maintains the UK’s main telecoms network used by telephone and broadband providers such as Sky, TalkTalk, Vodafone and BT Consumer. Openreach has obligations to offer the same products to all customers on the same terms.

Ofcom introduced this structure in 2005, and it has delivered benefits such as stronger competition. However, BT retains influence over significant Openreach decisions. BT has an incentive to make these decisions in the interests of its own retail businesses, rather than BT’s competitors, which can lead to competition problems.

In February, Ofcom said that Openreach must become more independent from BT, and has yesterday proposed how this should work.

Ofcom’s proposed model, announced yesterday, is for:

  • Openreach to become a distinct company. Openreach should be a legally separate company within BT Group, with its own ‘Articles of Association’. Openreach - and its directors - would be required to make decisions in the interests of all Openreach’s customers, and to promote the success of the company.
  • Openreach to have its own Board. The new Board should have a majority of non-executive directors, including the Chair. These non-executives should not be affiliated to BT Group in any way, but would be both appointed and removed by BT in consultation with Ofcom.
  • Executives accountable to the new Board. Openreach’s Chief Executive should be appointed by, and accountable to, the Openreach Board - not BT Group. The Chief Executive would then be responsible for other executive appointments. There should be no direct lines of reporting from Openreach executives to BT Group, unless agreed by exception with Ofcom.
  • Greater consultation with customers. Openreach would be obliged to consult formally with customers such as Sky and TalkTalk on large-scale investments. There should be a ‘confidential’ phase during which customers can discuss ideas without this being disclosed to BT Group.
  • Staff to work for Openreach. Ofcom’s principle for the new model is that people who work for Openreach should be employees of the new company, rather than BT Group. This would prevent any real or perceived conflict of interest, and allow Openreach to develop its own distinct organisational culture.
  • Openreach to own assets that it already controls. Openreach should own its physical network. This would allow the Openreach Board to make decisions that depend on investing in, and looking after, Openreach’s assets. There may be costs in transferring assets or people to Openreach, which would need to be mitigated.
  • A separate strategy and control over budget allocation. Openreach should develop its own strategy and annual operating plans, within an overall budget set by BT Group.
  • Independent branding. Openreach should have its own brand, not affiliated with BT Group, to help embed the organisational culture of a distinct company.

This model would provide Openreach with the greatest degree of independence from BT Group that is possible without incurring the costs and disruption - to industry and consumers - associated with separating the companies entirely.

It is designed to ensure that Openreach acts more independently from BT Group, and takes decisions for the good of the wider telecoms industry and its customers. If it cannot achieve this, Ofcom will reconsider whether BT and Openreach should be split into two entirely separate companies, under different ownership.

We are seeking views on the plans outlined yesterday by 4 October.

BT has notified plans to Ofcom to deliver changes to Openreach’s governance, to make it more independent and accountable to its customers. We welcome BT’s acknowledgement of the need to reform Openreach, and elements of BT’s proposal. However, there remain important areas where it does not fully address our concerns. For example, the need for Openreach to be a legally separate company, and for Openreach to have confidential discussions with its customers without oversight by BT.

Boosting investment in fibre networks

In February, Ofcom committed to make it easier for telecoms providers to invest in advanced, competing infrastructure by improving access to Openreach’s network of telegraph poles and its ‘ducts’ - the underground tunnels that carry telecoms cables.

This would make it possible for competitors to connect their own fibre optic cables directly to homes and businesses, delivering more choice for people and businesses over the next decade, while reducing the UK’s reliance on the Openreach network.

The plans include making Openreach provide an online database showing the physical location and characteristics of its ducts and poles - a ‘digital map’ of the UK. Last week, the company demonstrated how this will work.

BT has already started trials of new, simpler processes for sharing its network, working with five other telecoms companies. Ofcom welcomes this progress, and will set out further detail on improved duct and pole access in the autumn.

On Sunday (31 July), new rules1 come into force that will give telecoms providers further rights to access physical infrastructure. These measures are designed to reduce the cost of deploying broadband networks, by sharing access to infrastructure across different sectors.

A number of companies are continuing to roll out ultrafast fibre networks. Virgin Media is investing £3bn to extend its network across the UK. CityFibre, Sky and TalkTalk are connecting fibre to premises in York, and KCom is doing so in the Hull area. Other providers, such as Hyperoptic and Gigaclear, are bringing ultrafast broadband to local areas.

A step-change in quality of service

In February, Ofcom also announced a range of measures designed to ensure that all phone and broadband companies provide service quality that customers expect.

Since then, Ofcom has taken significant steps to improve services, as well as boosting coverage - including:

  • Automatic compensation. We have begun discussions with industry to require telecoms companies to provide automatic compensation to customers when their service falls short.
  • Easier switching. We have also published proposals for making it simpler and speedier for mobile customers to switch network. We will shortly publish plans to make it easier to switch landline, broadband and pay-TV services.
  • Advanced coverage checkers. These interactive mobile and broadband coverage maps allow people to check what services are available in their area, and whether they are receiving what they should be.
  • Supporting a legal right to decent broadband. We have gathered evidence for Government on how its planned universal broadband service should be designed. Ofcom believes that all homes and offices should receive at least 10 Mbit/s - enough to stream TV, make video calls or hold virtual meetings - and this minimum should increase over time.
  • Improving business lines. We have introduced new rules to require BT to provide access to its fibre network ofhigh-speed business lines to competitors.
  • Text to opt out of nuisance calls. Ofcom and the Telephone Preference Service have launched a ‘text-to-register’ service, enabling mobile users to add their number to the UK’s official ‘do not call’ database.

In the coming months, Ofcom will carry out further work on:

  • Tough performance rules on Openreach. Later this year we will set out stricter minimum requirements for Openreach to repair faults and install new lines more quickly.
  • Performance tables. From next year, we will publish tables on communications providers’ quality of service, showing the best and worst performers on a range of measures so that customers can shop around with confidence.
  • Coverage checkers by address. We plan to update our interactive maps to offer even more comprehensive information on mobile and broadband coverage by individual address, not just postcode.

Sharon White, Ofcom Chief Executive, said: “We’re pressing ahead with the biggest shake-up of telecoms in a decade, to make sure the market is delivering the best possible services for people and business across the UK.”

NOTES TO EDITORS

  • These rules are the Communications (Access to Infrastructure) Regulations 2016.
Channel website: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/

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