UK fi­bre fund risks ‘bu­reau­cratic car crash’, warns Open­reach boss

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business - By Matthew Field

BORIS JOHN­SON’s £5bn fi­bre broad­band plan risks de­gen­er­at­ing into a “bu­reau­cratic car crash” as net­work ex­ec­u­tives warn de­lays could de­rail the am­bi­tious pro­ject.

The Prime Min­is­ter’s UK-wide plan to sup­ply every house with “gi­ga­bit ca­pa­ble” broad­band by 2025 was an­nounced last sum­mer, but is still be­ing thrashed out with tele­coms bosses.

Clive Sel­ley, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Open­reach, BT’s in­fra­struc­ture arm, warned the com­plex­ity of the Gov­ern­ment’s pro­pos­als could slow down the pro­ject. He said ini­tial plans would see more than 1,000 lots up for grabs.

“The early chat­ter has been talk of 1,200 or 1,400 lots, and that is just a bu­reau­cratic car crash,” he said. “For a big player, we want two or three con­tracts with a big price tag.”

Mr Sel­ley added Open­reach would need at least two years to train the re­quired engi­neers to con­nect mil­lions of homes to fi­bre. He es­ti­mated 7,500 engi­neers would be needed to con­nect an ad­di­tional 3m homes. “I have train­ing ca­pac­ity for 4,000 per an­num, so we’d rather get go­ing on Mon­day, not Mon­day 2021,” he said.

The com­ments come amid talks with the Depart­ment of Dig­i­tal, Cul­ture, Me­dia and Sport to agree how the £5bn sub­sidy will be dis­trib­uted to in­dus­try.

A DCMS spokesman said: “We are work­ing closely with in­dus­try to re­fine our un­prece­dented £5bn plans to con­nect the hard­est-to-reach ar­eas with gi­ga­bit-ca­pa­ble broad­band. Peo­ple in th­ese ar­eas would oth­er­wise be left be­hind and we are mov­ing for­ward at pace in a way that will de­liver value for money and pro­mote com­pe­ti­tion.”

While Open­reach is the UK’s largest fi­bre provider, there are also hopes smaller firms, such as Ci­tyFi­bre and Gi­ga­clear, will take on con­tracts.

BT has com­mit­ted £12bn to ac­cel­er­ate the de­ploy­ment of fi­bre broad­band to 20m homes over the next decade. Fi­bre op­tic wires boost con­nec­tions, mean­ing an HD film can down­load in less than two min­utes. Im­prov­ing fi­bre con­nec­tions is also seen as key to bet­ter home work­ing.

How­ever, the in­dus­try re­mains con­cerned that fur­ther de­lays to the £5bn in­vest­ment will make the 2025 goal hard to reach. One source said: “The clock is tick­ing. If the 2025 tar­get is met it will not be Jan 1, 2025, it will be more like Dec 31.”

Sep­a­rately, Three has be­come the lat­est mo­bile firm to de­mand this year’s 5G spec­trum auc­tion be scrapped. The UK’s ban on new Huawei kit has meant Three has stepped up plans to pick another ven­dor. Its main 5G equip­ment sup­plier has been the Chi­nese firm.

Three joins Voda­fone in de­mand­ing the auc­tion be can­celled, with spec­trum in­stead al­lo­cated at a price agreed be­tween the networks them­selves.

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