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BT Pledge Over GBP1bn to Boost UK Broadband, But is it New Money

Wednesday, February 24th, 2016 (8:00 am) - Score 1,208
BT HQ UK Building Logo

The CEO of BT Group, Gavin Patterson, has made a final plea ahead of tomorrow’s Strategic Review outcome and informed the Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona (Spain) that he would “significantly” increase investment (£1bn+) in order to further improve national broadband connectivity.

Reports at the weekend suggested that Ofcom would not move to separate BT (here) from control of their national UK phone and broadband network (Openreach), although they might keep that option on the table. Never the less Patterson cannot afford to trust in leaks to the media, not least because BT will officially learn of its fate at the same time as everybody else.. tomorrow.

Gavin Patterson said:

“There’s a significant investment that we are ready to make now in the next generation of technology, more Fibre-to-the-Premise [FTTP], G.fast (and) Fibre-to-the-Cabinet [FTTC] … That’s a big decision, we are ready to make it if we get some regulatory certainty coming out of the Ofcom review.

Openreach is the only national player and it is very heavily regulated. We believe having Openreach as a unit within the BT group is good for investment and for research and development, and insures you get a national service at competitive prices. If it’s ever separated, would you see the same investments being made? I very much doubt you would.”

According to a related report on the FT, that “significant” investment would see BT spend £1 billion+ on improving UK broadband connectivity. But the commitment lacks key information, such as whether or not this actually reflects an existing pledge or even if it has separated out Capex (capital expenditure) from Opex (operating expenditure).

Readers may recall that BT made a big commitment last September towards improving national broadband connectivity (here) and the bulk of that is focused on their G.fast deployment. BT intends to begin the commercial roll-out of G.fast in 2017 (here and here) and they’ve pledged to make the new service available to 10 million premises by 2020, with “most of the UK” likely to be done by 2025. Initially the service will only offer speeds of up to 300Mbps, before later increasing to 500Mbps.

At this point readers may recall that BT’s original £2.5bn commercial commitment to roll-out superfast broadband (FTTC/P) also intended to deploy significantly more ultrafast fibre optic 330Mbps FTTP broadband (around 2.5 million premises passed), but the operator ended up dramatically scaling that back in order to focus on cheaper, but slower, 40-80Mbps FTTC. A fair bit of that £2.5bn didn’t get spent, which they’d say is good value for money.

However BT already spends around £300-400m per annum on “fibre” (so we were told last year) and broadly expect that to continue for the next 5 years until 2020, with the majority of future investment likely to support the G.fast roll-out. But BT also told us that G.fast could be done within the original £2.5bn commercial commitment and that begs the question, is the new promise of “significant” investment largely just a re-announcement?

We did shoot off a quick message in the hope of some clarity, although a BT spokesperson told ISPreview.co.uk, “Ofcom will release their provisional findings on Thursday morning and we will respond then. We made it clear in September that we are keen to invest large additional sums in the UK ‘s infrastructure and that has not changed. Regulatory certainty is required however as Gavin made clear yesterday.”

Lest we not forget BT’s other commitment, which originally (2010/11) promised to match the £830m state aid allocation through the Broadband Delivery UK programme (this is separate to the £2.5bn commercial commitment). At this point it’s becoming hard to distinguish new commitments from old. In any case we might get a clearer answer after tomorrow.

Meanwhile Vodafone’s CEO, Vittorio Colao, also used the MWC event to take a last ditch shot at BT: “A model which was supposed to be neutral and separated has actually been creating extra profits for the company that owns it. It’s a model that allows equal access but a price higher than most European countries. I hope [Ofcom’s CEO] is going to say either that she really supports considering the split of Openreach or at least that she will put much tighter obligations on Openreach, both in terms of performance and pricing.

We suspect that Vodafone will get at least part of what they want.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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40 Responses
  1. Avatar Shane

    Of course it’s not new money, it’s a please to stop them breaking up BT. I once promised to buy my other half a diamond. 3 years later she is still waiting…..by now I could get away with buying a harribo ring and she’ll be satisfied and then i’ll brag about how much cash i’ve saved and money I have in my bank.

    That’s BT….

  2. Avatar TheManStan

    The £300-400M per annum is probably the only factual statement that can be confirmed.
    It’s in their audited annual reports.

  3. Hmm. It kinda has to be new money, there isn’t enough in the NGA pot not to up the spending.

    The BDUK gap funded stuff is listed separately.

    They’d have to almost entirely stop maintenance in order to use existing spend for a billion a year on NGA.

    This roughly fits with the expected costs of G.fast with some FTTP and FTTC on the side. I believe I read £5-£6 billion for their commercial G.fast deployment so the extra for FTTP and FTTC works.

    Should be made clear that ~50% of the G.fast spend can be re-used for FTTP, which is nice.

    I’d prefer a gig over FTTP but will take G.fast over a few years of legal wrangling followed by a prolonged rollout of FTTP.

    Deploying anything in the UK is a real pain in the backside – Virgin Media are on their 4th attempt to get permission to deploy to a single street here, this despite ‘cutting the red tape’.

    http://about.virginmedia.com/press-release/9475/leeds-city-council-secures-40m-ultrafast-internet-boost-for-80000-homes-and-businesses

    http://s10.postimg.org/kt48c1vy1/VM_Permits.jpg

    And the majority of their work at the moment is remedial work, the same scenario that caused Gigaclear to triple their budget per homes passed in an early project.

    • Avatar Steve Jones

      I’m sure BT will also be counting BDUK clawback payments as investment (it will appear on the books that way). Even though BT have brought some of that forwards, it seems pretty obvious given the takeup rate (against some incredibly conservative assumptions) will mean that there’s more to come. It would easily amount to several hundred million over the next few years. BT will scrabble around for anything that might count as investment.

    • As you said below this is part of the wasted effort.

      This whole thing is so ridiculously politicised it basically forces BT to be as, or more, concerned about perception as they are reality.

      An awful lot to be said for deregulation.

      It is perhaps ironic that in Europe we’re banging the drum for deregulation yet we lead the way in regulating the incumbent telco and the rest of Europe look to us as a guide on interventionist policy in this regard.

    • Avatar MikeW

      Did you read Gavin’s statement as a £billion per year? Or as a total?

      When I read the original G.Fast announcements, they didn’t seem to say that they would be handled within the previously-announced £2.5bn. But they did seem to say that the rollout would be within “normal budget”.

      I took that to mean that the ongoing expenditure of around £300-400m on “fibre projects” was now going to be perceived as “normal budget”, spent annually, for the foreseeable future.

      (If anything, this is a great advance. The mostly-FTTC rollout had to be planned with big announcements of big budgets, with big commitments by investors. Now, the investors seem to have been conditioned towards the concept of an ongoing investment of £300-400m pa for as long again, without anywhere near as much fuss. It is now just “business as usual”)

      This £1bn could be new. It could be annual, but I doubt it. Or it could be a restatement of £300-400mn per annum, as the investment from 2017 to 2020.

      If it were a new amount, but total, to be spent by 2020, then it would represent doubling the current rate of expenditure. That’s a lot of extra civil engineering work being paid for, a lot of extra labour.

    • Avatar MikeW

      @Steve

      The clawback is a funny thing.

      In order to free up the clawback, and to allow it to be given back to the council, then BT must indeed be increasing their investment by the exact same sum. In that sense, clawback does represent an increase in investment. BT will have still made their original investment (their side of the gap-funded boundary) as before.

      But the way they’ve proposed the “early clawback” aspect is with a tie-in to spend the money back with BT, extending coverage. That means it comes back to BT again (though not as investment), but it still represents gap funding … so BT will also have to commit some amount of their own money into the new coverage area too. That’ll also count as new investment.

      The net effect is that the same total of subsidy comes into BT, but BT’s own contribution (their investment) is higher, and the coverage is higher.

    • Avatar Steve Jones

      My reading is that the planned g.fast scope could have been achieved with the same sort of capex run rate that was seen with the original £2.5bn commercial FTTC investment, albeit there is controversy as to how much of that was actually capex and how much opex. In any event, around the same sort of cost-run envelope. I think there is also some increase implied to cover a USO commitment. That said, I think BT know something rather more than we do on how much further the committed BDUK budget can be pushed, with the aid of clawback money to fill those gaps. I’m anticipating that BT will probably put some flesh on that as part of the whole PR campaign that’s going to follow the publication of the market review. It will have to show fast progress in the great majority of slow speed areas though, but I suspect they figure if they can greatly slow the flow of letters to MPs, it might take the sting out of demands for universal gigabit and so on. Of course it will have to be done without substantial public money. I don’t think we’ll see another project on the s ale of BDUK.

  4. Avatar Patrick Cosgrove

    Like all bullies, they squeal like piglets when confronted.

  5. Another quite interesting note is Vodafone complaining about Openreach’s pricing while they have their ongoing will-they won’t-they with Liberty Global.

    Virgin Media complain about the pricing of Openreach for quite different reasons than it being too high.

    I guess Vodafone are upset about the prices they are charged by Deutsche Telekom too:

    http://www.vodafone.de/dsl/vdsl.html

    There’s nothing really to see here. Business people will be business people. Those who purchase services from Openreach want them as cheaply as possible. Those who have an interest in Openreach being more expensive will disagree.

    • Avatar Steve Jones

      It’s fascinating that what has scuppered the Vodafone deal with Liberty Global on the VM purchase is complex Tax Issues. More particularly, John Malone’s complex arrangements and use of historic VM losses to offset his tax. Ironic in view of the charges leveled against Vodafone for creative corporate structures to avoid tax in Europe. Whether or not it is justified, it rather points to something being wrong with tax law if historic corporate structural issues with regard to tax have so much material impact on the logic or otherwise of commercial arrangements.

      In any event, you do have to wonder what position Vodafone would be in if they did buy VM. Unless the regulations changed, they would find themselves with a fully vertically integrated fixed line telecoms business covering over half of the UK market (and the cheapest to serve part) without any USO (even in their operating areas), no requirement to provide wholesale access, let alone on non-discriminatory terms, and the freedom to invest in network infrastructure wherever they wish without any fear of MPs jumping up and down demanding that they resolve their constituents’ broadband access issues. Sky could be a big loser from this sort of arrangement. I’m also beginning to think that TalkTalk are rather doomed in this sort of company (or, at least, that they will be marginalised to the Poundland end of the market) unless they can ally themselves with a company with much deeper pockets.

    • Avatar Ignition

      I have long suspected TalkTalk are on their way down. They are already the Poundland of broadband.

      Their business model was focused around treating broadband as a freebie with their phone service and those revenues dropped substantially.

      It is quite amusing when Sky complain about the dominance of others. They are probably still throwing a strop over BT’s move into a market they dominate and consider their own.

      If Ofcom were actually consumer focused they would be having a serious look at just how much consumer cash is going into inflating salaries and transfer values in football.

      Seems people paying more for broadband to reward investment in infrastructure is bad but people who follow what is for whatever reason our national sport paying through the nose for TV to purchase a mansion and some Ferraris for a footballer is peachy.

    • Avatar Steve Jones

      The Premier League deal was astonishing. A total of £5.1bn, of which Sky are paying 82% (almost £4.2bn) for three years. So Sky are putting £1.4bn a year into Premier league football and BT Consumer around £320m a year (albeit that both will recover some through reselling). The analysis appears to be that Sky overpaid hugely in the sealed bid as they were petrified they would lose their dominance of Premier League coverage, but it puts the amount spent on infrastructure investment into perspective.

    • Quite. It puts the expenditure on what is looking increasingly like a PR stunt in York into context when you realise that, even ignoring the costs of actually producing the content for transmission, it cost Sky less than 4 days of Premier League content rights.

  6. Avatar Steve Jones

    Double counting investment? Has Gavin Patterson been taking lessons off of chancellors of the exchequer?

    Of course this is all stuff aimed at the PR debate, and it’s surely far too late to impact on the report to be published as that has surely been finalised. What will, of course, happen is some sort of negotiation exercise behind the scenes in parallel with a massive amount of public pronouncements from all the interested parties. Whatever the report says, there will be a huge amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth. MPs will make ill-informed statements, various think tanks will make pronouncements. There will be angry outbursts from various companies which may, or may not, be genuine. In all, a massive amount of heat and not too much light.

    In many ways it’s a huge waste that so much management effort goes into political, public and regulatory lobbying rather than running businesses. I wonder how much management and consultant time has gone into the lobbying (rather than problem solving) side of dealing with these issues. Perhaps this is inevitable when the government approach to this whole area has, necessarily or not, been so heavily interventionist in its regulatory approach. With so much focus on Ofcom, I wouldn’t want to be in Sharon White’s shoes as, whatever is decided, there will be a lot of angry reaction including not a few politicians.

    • I can only agree.

      Sadly Ofcom necessitate a whole bunch of wasted effort that could, and should, be better spent elsewhere.

      The focus on telecomms here is truly bizarre. Ofcom could do worse than investigate our pay TV market if they’re looking for a real stand-out from our European peers.

    • Avatar dragoneast

      I’d quite like to be in Sharon White’s shoes. She has everything written for her and doesn’t have to think for herself.

      But seriously, since I was a kid the more my parents tried to control me the more inventive I became in my deviousness and excuses. If you can’t convince them, confuse them. We don’t change as we get older, or if we just happen to be a corporate person.

    • Avatar Steve Jones

      Sharon White is, of course, a Whitehall mandarin so I’ve no doubt she will survive, but it might be a make-or-break deal on whether she goes on to bigger and better things. Given her background, she’s probably very used to being bounced around by political whims and the necessary trade-offs. What I rather fear as that what comes out will be decided by the politics and not the deliverables. People seem to be utterly fixated on the organisational structures of the business and not on the (to my mind) rather more important issues of economic market drivers.

      We can see the impact with this on the priority that Ofcom (encouraged by the EU and politicans) put on minimising retail prices at the expense of strategic network investments. The LLU “fix” was never more than a short term approach that was always going to make substantial NGA network investment difficult and uncertain. Several economists have produced studies on this. That’s not to say that the priority was necessarily wrong. Quick delivery at cheap prices may have been the most important issue, but politicians and the regulators they empower cannot disown the consequences of the policy. Even such things as the technical standards on the copper network are heavily constrained by a whole bunch of, sometimes conflicting, uses. For example, LLU operators now have a lot of investment sunk into enabling exchanges. I’ll make a guess now that a lot of that has not yet returned the initial capital investment. The logical development of the network is to gradually eliminate most local exchanges through extending fibre penetration and (in some cases) putting active components in the network closer to the end user. Trying to get agreement for such a thing is now enormously difficult due to the potential for stranded investments of so many companies.

    • Avatar dragoneast

      Ofcom should, quite simply, do as little as possible and let the market function efficiently. The internet is still an emerging technology, where innovation is key. And no innovation ever came out of the iron fist of state intervention, in any form. This form of control of who does what and how they do it is a mug’s game.

      At best the state can set up a framework which facilitates innovation and investment. We have the opposite. It doesn’t. Too often the biggest investment is in inflated egos.

    • Avatar dragoneast

      And the result is we have more state intervention that was suffered by the old nationalised industries. They were their own worst enemies. Now it is Ofcom and some of the other Regulators, too.

    • Avatar MikeW

      Like @ignition, I can only agree with the original post.

      The report is written. Sharon is already practicing her speeches. The only thing that hasn’t happened is the fat lady and her song.

      Tomorrow will be a write-only day of frenzied media sound-bites from those who don’t like the result – which will be virtually everybody. There will be little thought behind most of it.

      It is a day best given over to quiet introspection

    • Avatar GNewton

      @SteveJones: It is easy to criticise Ofcom or the government. Would tell us for a change what you would have done to accomplish better fibre broadband for all?

    • Avatar TheFacts

      @GN – why do you ask ‘for all’, meaning 100%? What do you think would be involved?

    • Avatar GNewton

      @TheFacts: My question was for SteveJones. He seems to see, often correctly, many problems when it comes to improve fibre broadband coverage, but it would be nice to hear from him what could actually be done, and how.

      Your proposal from about a year ago to have the government finance a nationwide fibre broadband rollout is, as you yourself admitted later, not very realistic.

      Ignition (Carl Thomas) has at least some fresh ideas along the lines of better infrastructure competition, though it’s not likely Ofcom will go for that option.

    • Avatar TheFacts

      Why fibre broadband for all when radio and wireless systems are constantly improving?

    • Avatar GNewton

      @TheFacts: So why aren’t you using radio or wireless broadband then?

  7. Avatar Diggory Laycock

    Let me guess – that £1bn will go towards G.fast in areas that are already well served by FTTC close to the premises.

    Meanwhile much of the BDUK money is going into a few number of cabinets which serve such a large area that even though the premises are ‘fibre enabled’ the copper length from the FTTC Cab means that there’s no real improvement. This is especially galling if the clawback cash from the premises unable to get 24mb goes into g.fast for the easy to reach areas.

    I think that for g.fast rollout OR should have an outside-in strategy: i.e. start at the edges of the network first as they would benefit most. (But then I’m biased!)

    e.g. look at the distances between the cabinets in this map: You could fit Reading into some of the gaps. http://public.tableau.com/views/Cabinetmap/CabinetMap?:embed=y&:showVizHome=no

    I’d also like to know exactly how BT/BDUK measure the number of premises that are served by an FTTC cabinet but cannot get 24mb. I bet it’s not via real-world tests (many rural lines are degraded and a mess of joins). I bet that the figures that they use are generous (in speed terms) when compared to real life, which would of course reduce the clawback amount.

    (rant over…)

    • Avatar Diggory Laycock

      If anyone does know how the 24mb boundary is calculated please do post!

    • Avatar MikeW

      That Oxfordshire map only includes BDUK cabinets, not the commercial ones. And it doesn’t include all the phases still to come. Clicking on “<", to reach 1/20, gives the postcode picture, which shows another 3 phases, plus the commercial parts, plus the CostwoldBB area where they are responsible instead. But otherwise you are right – there aren't too many cabinets in land areas where there aren't many people and properties.

      The clawback cash, of course, won't go to a g.fast rollout. If re-spent, it can only go to the identified intervention area, necessarily receiving sub-25Mbps speeds.

      BT's estimates of speeds come from measurements of the attenuation of the copper/aluminium between the cabinet and the DP (eg at the top of the pole in the street). That attenuation will reflect some aspects of the quality of the wire (material, length, diameter, and number of joints) but probably doesn't take account of temporal effects (joints going bad, water ingress).

      With the attenuation known, the estimates come from comparison of actual speeds of a similar group of lines; the top end of the range represent the speed that the best 20% of similar lines can achieve; the bottom of the range represents the speeds that the best 80% of similar lines can achieve.

      In the absence of actual knowledge of line performance, the BDUK project in North Yorkshire used a figure of 1.2km as being able to achieve the 25Mbps threshold. They used this to map coverage, rather than colouring postcodes – in rural areas, these could be much larger.
      http://www.computerweekly.com/news/2240202760/Where-is-BDUK-rolling-out-broadband#NorthYorkshire

      If the line is of thicker copper, then the distance increases. 1.2km may be valid for 0.5mm copper, but it could extend to over 3km if 0.9mm copper was in use.

      The impact of that 1.2km threshold is seen in the maps produced by SFNY:
      http://www.superfastnorthyorkshire.com/media/1146860/150610-Static-Website-Coverage-Small.jpg

    • Avatar MikeW

      I should add … that last map shows SFNY plans for their phase 2, which targets SF coverage of around 89% IIRC.

    • Avatar Diggory Laycock

      Thanks MikeW

    • Avatar FibreFred

      If its there own commercial rollout they can spend it where they expect to get the best returns

      Makes good commercial sense?

    • Avatar GNewton

      @MikeW: “The clawback cash, of course, won’t go to a g.fast rollout. If re-spent, it can only go to the identified intervention area, necessarily receiving sub-25Mbps speeds.”

      I don’t think any BDUK area will be upgraded to G.Fast, BT will only deal with the so-called commercially viable areas for it G.Fast rollout. Correct me if I am wrong.

    • Avatar MikeW

      Why do you think that being in the BDUK part of *this* rollout means that a site will therefore be commercially unviable in a G.fast rollout?

  8. Avatar Steve Jones

    I can’t speak for how verification of estimated speeds are performed across BDUK, but this very subject is covered the Welsh Superfast programme. Their method is to take a 20% sample of cabinets and onsite (witnessed) physical tests.

    http://www.superfast-cymru.com/testing-and-verification

  9. Avatar mrpops2ko

    I liken the BT snakeoil to being in an abusive relationship. They abuse you constantly while together and then at the faintest sign of having to break up they bend over backwards. We are told that the money just isn’t there, deployment just isn’t possible. Gigaclear do it. It could be done if it was deemed of importance. We could all have gigabit FTTP.

    It all stems from under-investment, both at the core (i suspect) as well as externally (feeding to us). If we did all have gigabit FTTP, the rollout cost would again have to be spent at about the same amount improving the BT core to handle all the new traffic. This is what I suspect is their apprehension. BT fear we would actually make use of the connection.

    You’ll see the whole raft of BT shills here tell you that it just isn’t possible and cost effective but I say otherwise. Hell even allowing customers to pay for their own fibre rollout would be a start.

    Give us the option of campaigning locally and arranging it street by street. FTTPOD is like £1300~, that goes down massively in cost when you convert an entire street. For the households not willing to convert, tack the price onto their usual rent price. 40/10 or 80/20 vs 1000/1000. Anybody can see the difference in those numbers.

    • ‘If we did all have gigabit FTTP, the rollout cost would again have to be spent at about the same amount improving the BT core to handle all the new traffic. This is what I suspect is their apprehension. BT fear we would actually make use of the connection.’

      It really wouldn’t, not even any definition of close, and our usage wouldn’t jump thousands of percent overnight.

      ‘You’ll see the whole raft of BT shills here tell you that it just isn’t possible and cost effective but I say otherwise. ‘

      I’m afraid reality isn’t subjective and doesn’t care about your opinion. Neither does disagreeing with you make someone a ‘BT shill’. Other operators have better business cases than BT do to spend the necessary to build out FTTP. Speaking for myself I favour others putting money where mouth is, increasing the level of competitoin, and bringing better services that way.

      ‘FTTPOD is like £1300~’

      Generally, no, it’s way more than that, and also costs £120 a month wholesale on a 36 month contract, which is upwards of half-again that by the time it hits retail.

      I’m looking at a shade under 7k install for FoD.

      ‘For the households not willing to convert, tack the price onto their usual rent price. 40/10 or 80/20 vs 1000/1000.’

      You want to force people who aren’t bothered to pay extra for a gigabit even if they don’t want it? Delightful.

      The product most buy on FTTC/P is 40/10. The product most people buy on Virgin Media is the 50Mb. Less than 10% take the top tier the cable operator offers them.

      You may be absolutely desperate for a gigabit to the point where you want to force the rest of your street to subsidise upgrade whether they want it themselves or not but most people just don’t care.

      They’re more interested in Netflix and chill than whatever you think a gigabit allows them to do. 40Mb serves them fine.

      I have higher needs and would find better than the 60/16 I get now useful but I’m in a tiny minority and am not the mainstream market. That is good enough as cheaply as possible. Present them FiOS for £100 a month for 300Mb, £70/month+ for uVerse or even Google Fiber at around the £50 a month mark and they’ll balk, regardless of the numbers.

      If speed were the big consideration Virgin Media would have nearly 100% of the market in their passed areas. Simple as that.

  10. Avatar GNewton

    @Ignition – Carl Thomas: “‘FTTPOD is like £1300~’

    Generally, no, it’s way more than that, and also costs £120 a month wholesale on a 36 month contract, which is upwards of half-again that by the time it hits retail.”

    Where do you get this figure from? Fibre-on-Demand has been suspended, and won’t be available for most for a long time to come. Also, once a fibre-line is set, at realistic deployment cost, why should the subsequent monthly cost be several times higher compared to FTTP? Is FoD a different, more difficult to maintain fibre? I don’t think so.

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