Openreach: what’s it good for?

August 7, 2020 1 Comment

It sounds so positive as a name, doesn’t it?  Openreach.  Open reach.  Imagine an arm extended in friendly welcome or offering a helping hand to someone in need.  An organisation, surely, that exists only to add to the sum of human happiness.  ‘Connecting you to your network’, says the website, ‘we believe everyone deserves fast and reliable broadband’.

The reality, alas, is different.

Most people, even if they’ve heard of Openreach, probably don’t give it much thought, beyond noticing the company’s white vans parked outside telecoms cabinets at the end of streets, its engineers perched on low stools with their heads among the coloured wires.  And that’s how Openreach like things to be.  Despite its size (33,000 employees), influence and ubiquity, it prefers to be as invisible to the general public as it can be.  A recent experience has set me thinking about why that might be.

Last month our broadband connection became intermittent, then died altogether.  It’s very inconvenient at the best of times to lose your internet link, but in lockdown the loss seemed even more serious.  I contacted our ‘service provider’, BT.  That meant waiting for half an hour on the phone.  (Like most large companies, they calculate, probably rightly, that their time is more valuable than yours.)  Having convinced the voice that an engineer was really needed, one was booked to visit, in two days’ time.  The voice warned me that all Covid-19 precautions would be in place.  So far, so good.

BT sub-contract their engineering work to Openreach.  This arrangement, as we’ll see, is a fiction, though, from their point of view, a convenient one.  So it was an Openreach, not a BT engineer who turned up on the doorstep.  We were amazed that he had no Covid-19 protections of any kind.  We offered him a mask, and stood well back as he went upstairs and checked our router.  It was blameless.  He went away to check other possibilities.

No one contacted us after that, though our broadband remained dead.  We found that several other houses in the street were also e-dead, including next door.  The engineers (by now there were two) were sitting in their van at the end of the street, next to the junction box.  From time to time we went out to ask them about progress.  After two days they confessed that the problem had defeated them.  They weren’t sure whether the fault lay in the box, in the copper cables or in mysterious electrical interference (‘REIN’) leaking from nearby buildings.  They would have to call in help – from Ceredigion.  By now a 4G ‘mini-hub’ had arrived from BT to give us some limited internet access, though it worked only occasionally.

At this point we resorted to Twitter in an attempt to shame the company.  Not Openreach – as we’ll see, they’re not open to any sort of reach – but BT.  This had some effect.  A member of BT’s social networking unit, in Northern Ireland, contacted us, and I had a pleasant conversation with him.  He assured me he would pass on the message.  But, of course, he couldn’t intervene directly with the Openreach managers.

Finally, five or six days after it collapsed, broadband suddenly returned (it took longer for some others in the street, and today there’s still an Openreach van at the end of the street).  We weren’t told by the engineers that the problem had been fixed.  Nor were we offered any explanation of the nature of the fault, or any apology for the lack of Covid precautions, probably the most serious of Openreach’s failings.  The only communication was an automated text inviting me to rate BT’s performance on a scale of 0 (execrable) to 10 (excellent).  I gave them ‘0’.  The connection still isn’t perfect, and the download speed can be very low (today, a tenth of what it should be).

These days you learn to expect indifferent or poor service from most large commercial organisations.  You don’t expect to have to cope with two large firms.  But, of course, BT and Openreach are the same company.  They just pretend to be different.  There seem to be two reasons.  One is to do with monopoly power.  BT has long been under attack because Openreach controls access to the telecommunications infrastructure BT shares with other service providers like Sky and TalkTalk.  Those other companies can justly complain that they’re at the mercy of a competitor who has a stranglehold over the network they have no choice but to use.  The other reason is that in dealing with customers, especially disgruntled customers, BT can easily blame Openreach, Openreach can blame BT, and both can deny responsibility when things go wrong.

In our case, BT maintained that the problem lay with Outreach.  But Openreach refuses to deal directly with end users.  If you go to its website you’ll notice that the ‘contact us’ section is well hidden.  When you do find it, you’re directed to your service provider, not anyone in Openreach, as if to say, ‘nothing to do with us, guv’.  There are a few exceptions. You’re allowed to get into contact to thank an engineer, for example – but not to complain about one.  In fact, Openreach is very reticent in general.  You won’t find from its website who are the people in positions of authority there.

No one cares about poor service, except the poor customers.  But there is an official body that’s supposed to care about alleged telecoms monopolies, the regulator Ofcom.  From time to time Ofcom, a toothless animal, bleats about the unfair advantage BT enjoys through its control of Openreach.  In 2016 it summoned up the courage to announce that it was starting proceedings to require a legal separation of the two organisations.  It that failed to produce results, it threatened, the companies would be broken up.  But in 2017 BT made counter-proposals, promising ‘voluntary commitments’ to reform the governance of Openreach.  Ofcom meekly accepted these, merely setting up a meaningless ‘monitoring unit’.   The upshot is that nothing fundamental has changed.

This official paralysis wouldn’t matter so much, maybe, if we enjoyed a ‘world-beating’ broadband network in Britain.  But BT/Openreach has presided over one of the most sluggish broadband programmes of any developed country.  The company’s love affair with copper wire has meant that we still don’t have fibre optic cables to more than 10% of UK households, twenty years after it became a practical option (Spain’s figure is 75%, Portugal 89% and Japan’s 97%).  The fibre ‘roll-out’, promised time and time again, has in reality been a crawl-out.  Here in Wales, areas like Ceredigion still suffer from primitive connections methods and speeds.  If we’re going to be commercially friendless and socially isolated in our new post-Brexit, post-Covid world, the least we expect is the best possible means of communicating electronically.

Covid lockdown has reinforced the truth that effective internet access is now a basic service for everyone, in the same way as electricity and water.  The infrastructures of all of these simply aren’t amenable to competitive commercial operation.  There is no possible justification for a private monopoly, a hoary relic of Thatcherite economics, in their supply.  No one except the monopolist gains.  They should all be under public control, instead of being like Openreach, an inaccessible, unaccountable and irresponsible mastodon.  Alas, by now the Labour Party has probably quietly dropped any intention to act, if it ever gets back to power.

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  1. Geoff Dean says:

    Made me smile Andrew, about the engineers sat in their van. Why, because almost every time I see a group of engineers/workmen in their ubiquitous hi-viz jackets, stood or seated around some sealed off area on the pavement, only one is actually working and the other four or five are on their mobiles or having a cup of tea and a chat. What do they discuss? Who knows, but it always seems to me that the poor fellow working drew the short straw!


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