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Skills gap hits UK broadband availability

Antony Savvas


The UK is facing a broadband availability crisis as a result of not enough engineers and other technical experts being available to upgrade infrastructure, writes Antony Savvas.

Factors playing a part in this crisis include poaching by other countries, including Ireland and Germany; the new IR35 tax rules; and a general shortage of skilled staff who have kept up with the requirements of technologies such as digital subscriber lines (DSL).

Telecoms watchdog Oftel has predicted that fewer than 1,000 of the UK's 6,000 phone exchanges will be upgraded to allow DSL services from rivals of BT from next summer.

This local loop unbundling process in the exchanges is largely reliant on BT having enough engineers on its payroll to first upgrade the exchanges for its own services and then manage competing services on an ongoing basis.

However, BT has found itself with a lack of engineers following a widespread redundancy programme last year, just before the introduction of DSL.

Yet BT says it is taking on thousands of extra staff on six-month to two-year contracts to cope, including many who were originally made redundant by BT.

This programme is in addition to widespread retraining of existing staff. But it is widely believed that even BT's own DSL roll-out, for services it sells itself and which are currently resold to rivals on a wholesale basis, is falling behind.

Poaching and IR35 are also playing their part. Benedicte Hecker, a spokeswoman for Eircom, Ireland's main phone operator, said, "We are employing hundreds of staff who would normally be working for BT and others in the UK. This is because we are well advanced in our roll-out of DSL technology in Ireland and our rates of pay are seen to be much higher when contractors take account of IR35.

"The Irish government, unlike the UK's, has no problems about individuals setting up their own companies to enjoy tax breaks."

Hecker was speaking at the recent TMA telecom managers' conference in Brighton, where Eircom had a busy recruitment stand. The company is recruiting across the telecoms technologies, including older skills like synchronous digital hierarchy (SDH) to look after fibre networks.

Eircom's recruitment plans are even being copied by UK firms frustrated with the slow roll-out of DSL in this country, compared to Germany for instance.

First:telecom, for example, has been recruiting both blue- and white-collar staff to work in Germany, where it has already established an advanced DSL network to take advantage of the local loop unbundling which has already taken place there.

Fred Hughes, vice president of engineering at Viatel, said, "There is clearly a growing skills crisis in DSL provision."

He said, "We will want to locate our own services through BT's exchanges when unbundling comes from next July, but there is every indication that BT will be struggling to provide the right number of staff to set up and manage these alternative services."

Hughes said it would be a good idea if BT spun off its DSL business to allow more transparency in tackling unbundling, but BT does not look willing to do this.


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