It was another big week for the telecoms industry, as Ofcom emerged from its bunker after a year-long consultation on the current state of the sector. Its main conclusions (that the UK is lagging badly behind on the technology of the future, fibre to the home; and that BT is systematically abusing its ownership of the national network, Openreach) came as no surprise to many. The fact that the regulator’s 108 page report holds few concrete policy proposals to remedy its fairly punchy findings was nonetheless greeted with widespread frustration by commentators, customers and BT’s rivals.
BT has remained ostensibly bullish as whispers about the need for a break-up have grown into a roar over recent months. But an 11th hour ‘coincidental’ offer of an extra £1bn investment (presumably found down the back of the sofa) laid bare quite how nervy the ex-monopoly has become. BT celebrated a ‘victory’ yesterday, but smart shareholders will now want to know what exactly the regulator intends to do – did they really “bottle it”, in the words of Lib Dem Leader Tim Farron? Or could this be the start of a smart negotiation by Ofcom chief executive Sharon White, who was quite clear that full separation remains on the table until further notice.
One assumes this is by no means a settled debate for BT itself. Part of the business is clearly pulling away into retail, with aggressive expansion into mobile and TV – expensive pursuits that would benefit nicely from a big wad of cash from spinning off Openreach. Instead, BT’s beleaguered chief executive finds himself embroiled in a seemingly never-ending national debate over a crumbling infrastructure network. Openreach may still symbolise BT’s engineering heritage, but if Sharon White has her way and imposes a kitchen sink’s worth of new regulation, will keeping it be worth the trouble?
This commentary was provided exclusively by Jessica Lennard at TalkTalk for Hot Commodity.