Split BT and Openreach, ex-minister Anna Soubry says

Openreach vansImage copyright
Press Association

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BT has been criticised for low levels of superfast broadband access

Telecoms giant BT should be split up, according to the former business minister Anna Soubry.

She told the BBC’s Today programme that BT’s Openreach unit, which runs much of the UK’s broadband infrastructure, should become a separate company.

That option was recently considered by the communications regulator Ofcom, but ultimately rejected last month.

“I was very surprised that was pulled back on,” Ms Soubry said. “I’m sorry, but they have not delivered.”

Ms Soubry, who was in David Cameron’s government until he left office, said BT has “had enough second chances” to improve broadband.

“Radical action needs to be taken so that we have superfast broadband across the UK,” she said.

Superfast broadband is defined as speeds of 24 Mbps or more.

“It’s outrageous in this day and age that people do not have access to superfast broadband,” Ms Soubry said.

Speed row

Ofcom rejected the idea of splitting Openreach from BT in July, saying instead it should become a distinct company within the BT group.

It reiterated its stance following Soubry’s comments.

“Separating Openreach from BT would be a major undertaking, potentially causing disruption to the whole industry over a long time,” an Ofcom spokesperson said.

“We can’t afford to wait for better broadband, so we’re planning to reform Openreach more quickly – making it legally separate from BT, so that it serves all telecoms customers equally.”

Anna Soubry questioned BT’s claim 90% of properties have access to superfast broadband.

“I seem to meet every member of the 10%,” she said

BT says the figures are correct and independently audited.

Kim Mears, the managing director of infrastructure at BT Openreach, insists “over 91% of the UK have access to superfast speeds”.

“We’ve got a network across the UK that’s capable of giving those speeds.”

The company has promised that 95% of the country will have high-speed internet by the end of 2017, and hopes to fill the 5% gap by 2020.

“We’ve got some great technology, some great ideas, we’re leaning forward to work with government about how do we provide and work towards that final 5%,” said Ms Mears.

‘Make it work’

A report from MPs earlier this year said more than five million people were receiving unacceptable download speeds.

In February, Ofcom warned BT that full separation was still an option if it failed to improve.

“If necessary, Ofcom reserves the right to require BT to spin off Openreach as an entirely separate legal entity, with its own shareholders,” it said at the time.

Richard Dunbar, investment director at Aberdeen Asset Management, says Openreach’s new governance structure may be difficult to manage.

“They’ve got to make it work,” he said. “If there are any more falls away in service, or in performance, the reaction will get louder.”



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