Shadow culture secretary Chris Bryant says Ofcom should split up BT and Openreach if the UK is to meet its broadband targets
Openreach should be fully separated from BT unless Ofcom can find a good reason why it shouldn’t, according to shadow culture secretary Chris Bryant, who claims the current structure, coupled with ineffective government broadband programmes, is harming consumers and businesses.
The government is targeting 95 percent superfast broadband coverage by 2017, with 100 percent covered by the end of parliament, and its Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme has connected more than three million properties in areas not included in commercial deployments to fibre.
However Bryant, Labour MP for Rhonda, said the government and BT – which has won the vast majority of BDUK funding – had failed to deliver the speeds and coverage the country needs to take advantage of the advertised entertainment, economic and e-government benefits.
“Broadband that is too slow, too late. This comes despite the fact that we all rely on the internet,” he said. “This comes despite the fact that we all rely on the internet. In very short order broadband has become as much a public utility as electricity and water. We expect a reliable, high-speed service.”
He expressed his doubts the government would meet its 2017 deadline and said the universal service obligation should be 10Mbps – not the current 2Mbps. Similarly, he claimed the £150 Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP), the contract for which was won by Arqiva, had been a failure.
However most of Bryant’s criticisms were reserved for Openreach, which he said had been handed an unfair advantage by the BDUK, winning virtually all of the money available. BT’s rivals can access the Openreach network on a wholesale basis but claim the current structure is harming competition and say Openreach is too slow to repair faults and install new lines.
Ofcom has confirmed it is considering a breakup, alongside other options, as part of its once-in-a-decade review of the UK communications market, the last of which actually resulted in the creation of Openreach in 2005.
Break up Openreach
“The Government designed the tender process for the superfast roll-out in such a way that it was virtually impossible for anyone other than BT to win,” continued Bryant. “The end result was that BT Openreach won 44 out of 44 contracts and its monopoly was reinforced.
“The situation is now so bad that Ofcom’s review should work on the presumption that Openreach should be split from the rest of BT unless their review produces conclusive evidence to the contrary. At the very least Openreach should be held accountable for its poor quality of service – the delays for repairs, the missed appointments, the months of waiting to switch providers.”
BT has suggested any attempt at breakup would be met by years of litigation and claims the current setup has helped stimulate investment in fibre infrastructure. To deal with the threat of Bryant wants to see the communications regulator given more resources to deal with network operators.
“This has made Ofcom far more cautious than is good for the industry or the consumer. It is time the Government stopped dithering and got on with reforming Ofcom’s overly burdensome appeals process,” he said. “Mobile and broadband consumers have suffered far too long delays and businesses have suffered unnecessary regulatory uncertainty. Thus far, with a swath of the country still travelling at a snail’s pace digitally, the system has failed to deliver.”
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