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Labour MP Chris Bryant calls for Openreach sell-off from BT

Labour’s Chris Bryant says Ofcom’s communications review should be working on the basis that the split of Openreach from BT is a done deal

Labour MP Chris Bryant has called for more serious consideration to be given to forcibly splitting BT and its infrastructure division Openreach.

Bryant, who represents Rhondda in Wales and is also shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport, has been a frequent commenter on broadband issues and regularly participates in parliamentary debates on rural broadband.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Bryant said that it was right that Ofcom was considering whether or not Openreach remaining part of BT gave the incumbent an unfair advantage in the national broadband market and damaged the ability of rival operators to participate, especially when it came to roll-out into rural areas through the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme.

“The situation is 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,” wrote Bryant.

Bryant had critical words for Ofcom, saying that while the communications regulator had done an excellent job in fostering competition up to now, its hands were too often tied and its own rules and regulations were preventing it from giving Openreach a fair and balanced hearing.

He said the regulator was too cautious and called for the government to reform its “overly burdensome” appeals process.

“With a swathe of the country still travelling at a snail’s pace digitally, the system has failed to deliver,” said Bryant.

Speaking to Computer Weekly in July 2015, Openreach CEO Joe Garner said to change the relationship between BT and Openreach at this stage of the BDUK project would risk delaying it even further thanks to the legal battles that would inevitably accompany a split.

He pointed to evidence that Openreach was improving its ability to meet performance targets when it came to aspects of its services, such as appointment availability and attendance, and time taken to fix faults.

“We have consistently invested in Openreach in good times and in bad and the current set-up has allowed that to happen,” said Garner.

“There is evidence that, despite the massive shift in customer behaviour, we are responding and improving. That is only possible because we can access the massive resource and expertise of many people in the [BT] Group.”

Since the government’s announcement earlier in August 2015 that the BDUK roll-out had passed three million residential and commercial premises around the UK, rural broadband has suddenly become a major national issue, with many consumers contacting the BBC’s Today Programme to share details of their own experiences with substandard broadband speeds.

Many said that despite repeated promises of an upgrade, their speeds had barely improved above the mandated minimum of 2Mbps – which is barely enough speed to stream video services – and in some cases had actually gone backwards.

The clamour for better broadband from businesses has also gotten louder. Last week, business groups representing 40,000 local firms from south-west England expressed their displeasure at being excluded from a meeting examining the Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS) BDUK programme.

The meeting was called after Devon and Somerset Councils, which are co-operating on the CDS scheme, ditched their second phase contract with BT and announced they would re-tender it, which means the roll-out in the two counties will fall substantially behind the rest of the UK.

“We cannot run our businesses on this basis,” the group said in an open letter. “Our websites are our shop windows and with every day that passes more of our business processes rely on fast broadband. This is an urgent issue.”

Meanwhile, the Independent Networks Co-Operative Association (Inca) has called for an open tender process to re-invest £129m of claw-back cash released by BT in projects spearheaded by alternative suppliers, or altnets, as opposed to BT-led projects exclusively.

Read more on Telecoms networks and broadband communications

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