BT chief blames regulations for UK lagging in next-gen network rollout

Someone noticed Britain's about to elect a new govt, amirite?

The latest CEO of UK telecoms giant BT says that Scandinavian nations are far more developed than Britain when it comes to telco infrastructure, and the government needs to overhaul regulations to fix this.

Allison Kirkby, who took over as chief of the former state-owned monopoly in February, told the Deloitte and Enders media and telecoms conference in London that “Scandinavia is way ahead of the UK” when it comes to rolling out next-gen broadband infrastructure.

Kirkby joined BT from Swedish telco Telia, and also previously worked at TDC, the largest operator in Denmark, so speaks from experience with the Nordic telecoms market.

She told the conference that about 80 percent of homes in Sweden have a fiber connection, and that outcome was “very much driven by the regulatory environment, the planning environment and the general adoption of digital skills and digital services."

When asked what BT would like the government to do about this, Kirkby said the answer was regulatory and fiscal policy certainty, but claimed that planning this is really holding things back and needs rethinking.

“It’s not necessarily market structure that stops the UK having the great networks that I saw in Sweden – a lot of it is restricted by planning. The Swedes, the Norwegians, the Finnish all expected their highways, their trains, to have great connectivity wherever you were, even when you were up in the northern part of the country. A lot of what is not working in the UK is the planning legislation,” she said.

Yet Kirkby didn't detail exactly what planning changes would allow BT to speed up its rollout, and the company itself has often seemed reluctant to put new infrastructure in place.

As The Register noted nearly a decade ago, the company was slow to roll out fiber in many places, especially rural areas, because it did not consider them to be commercially viable.

In 2018, we reported how smaller network operators enabled nearly a million fiber connections to homes during the previous year, a figure more than double that achieved by BT’s infrastructure arm, Openreach.

More recently, Openreach decided to prioritize existing projects rather than start buildouts of its fiber broadband network into new areas, as the company sought to cut costs.

However, at the end of last year, Openreach congratulated itself on reaching the halfway mark in its goal of rolling out fiber broadband to 25 million UK premises by the end of 2026.

That boils down to deployment of fiber infrastructure in areas which together encompass a total of 12.5 million premises. The number of homes with a fiber connection actually stood at just over 4 million at the time.

One way the UK government might not be helping was advising telcos earlier this year to stop installing new telegraph poles. While recognizing that telegraph poles are quicker and more affordable than laying cables underground, it seems that complaints to MPs about overhead fiber deployments were a big driver of the decision.

Charity group The Digital Poverty Alliance called on the UK government to reconsider legislation surrounding telecoms infrastructure in order to boost the pace of rollout.

"The UK's telecom infrastructure falling behind other European countries isn't something we can afford to swallow which is why there's clear work that needs to be done by the incoming government," CEO Elizabeth Anderson said in a statement.

Telecoms analyst Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight told The Register that a more sensible and regulated approach should have been adopted earlier to ensure that more of parts of the UK benefited from fiber broadband.

“It is probably too late now to think of any other approach than letting the market evolve towards reducing the number of suppliers, given the vibrant ISP landscape,” he said. “As things stand, the market cannot support all players as there are too many chasing too few pounds.” ®

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