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Shadow minister for Fun calls for Openreach separation

Break it up, unless for some unlikely reason Ofcom says otherwise

Chris Bryant MP has added his support to the lobby which wants to see Openreach split from BT.

This is just one area under investigation as part of Ofcom's 2015 strategic review. The previous review a decade earlier saw Openreach ring-fenced as a separate BT organisation. However, the view of most of its customers – who are generally also rivals – is that complete separation is now needed.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Bryant said:

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.

Bryant is the shadow minister for Fun (Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport), and has been quite vocal on both rural broadband and mobile phone coverage in the past.

He doesn't have a view on the governance of the separated Openreach. He told The Register: "I'm happy to leave the precise structure of Openreach to BT."

Bryant added:

So what are Openreach and the Government delivering? Broadband that is too slow, too late. This comes despite the fact that we all rely on the internet.

In his piece, he highlighted the MIPS project, which with £150m managed to build two base stations (on existing towers) in three years.

He also highlighted how important broadband was to his constituents in the Rhondda:

As an MP in a constituency that is part urban and part rural and where nobody lives far from a farm, I know how essential it is for farmers who want to diversify their business and for the geographically isolated to have reliable superfast internet and mobile connections. It’s not an added extra any more; it’s essential for every aspect of our lives and the economy.

It is certainly true that Openreach is behind the curve, not just on availablity but speed and price. While officially the Openreach map checker shows wide availability of fibre to the permises, it’s next to impossible to get. So BT claims to have 300MB/sec Infinity 4, but very few homes can get it. Most are offered the 76MB/sec service.

Rivals offer higher speeds at lower prices. TalkTalk is putting fibre into York and charges customers no more than for the 1Gb service than it does for its standard £21.70 service. Hyperoptic will do contract-free 1Gb and both AQL and Gigaclear offer customers in the areas they cover 1Gb for around £25 a month.

While Bryant’s highlighting of the government’s failure to bring both BT Openreach and the mobile phone networks to book might seem to be different problems – fixed mobile broadband often isn’t an economical solution – there is an important link. Vodafone has argued that it would be wrong for BT to own most of the fibre in the UK when it buys EE, as that would give the company an unfair dominance of the customer base and backhaul.

A separation of BT and Openreach now seems inevitable, so in some ways Bryant is pushing at an open door. But fixing mobile coverage is more about revising the Electronics Communication Code.

Bryant explained to The Register: "A new electronic communications code is long overdue. It should recalibrate the balance between network operators and land owners, so that mobile telephony is treated more like a public utility."

Which is exactly what the mobile companies want. Well, that and very tall masts. ®

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