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UK ISP BT Tops 9.2 Mill Broadband Users and BDUK Sees Clawback Boost

Thursday, October 27th, 2016 (8:33 am) - Score 1,380

The latest quarterly (Q3 2016 calendar) results have been published by BT today, which reveal that their retail broadband base now tops 9,193,000 customers (up by +76K, unchanged from Q2) and 4,473,000 of those take their ‘Infinity‘ (FTTC/P) superfast broadband (up by +216K vs +181K in Q2).

As usual it’s been another busy quarter for the BT Group, which seems to have expended most of its energy on regulatory battles with Ofcom and rival ISPs. Elsewhere they unveiled a massive pilot of their 300Mbps capable G.fast broadband service with 140,000 UK premises (here and here) and confirmed their intention to begin the roll-out of IPv6 (here).

On top of that Openreach’s engineering teams have continued the roll-out of “fibre broadband” (FTTC/P) services across the United Kingdom, which can now reach around 26 million premises (mostly via the slower ‘up to’ 40-80Mbps FTTC technology) and that equates to about 92% coverage. Otherwise BT’s financial situation looks to have held up well, albeit with a few weaker areas.

Key Highlights from Today’s Quarterly Report
* BT Groups’ quarterly revenue hit £6,007m (up from £5,775m in Q2 2016)
* BT Group’s reported profits before tax hit £671m (down from £717m)
* BT Group’s half-year net debt to 30th Sept hit £9,573m (up from £5,919m last year)
* BT Wholesale’s quarterly operating profit hit £129m (up from £123m)
* Openreach’s quarterly operating profit hit £297m (down from £300m)
* Openreach’s quarterly capital expenditure hit £357m (up from £337m)

We should also highlight the latest situation with regards to BT’s capital expenditure and clawback / gain share from via the Government’s Broadband Delivery UK roll-out programme, which suggests that nearly £300m of public funding may now be available for reinvestment into future “fibre” expansion.

Capital Expenditure

Capital expenditure was £802m (Q2 2015/16: £629m). This consists of gross expenditure of £815m (Q2 2015/16: £691m) which has been reduced by net grant funding of £13m (Q2 2015/16: £62m) mainly relating to our activity on the BDUK programme.

Our base-case assumption for take-up in BDUK areas remains at 33%. Under the terms of the BDUK programme, we have a potential obligation to either re-invest or repay grant funding depending on factors including the level of customer take-up achieved. While we have recognised gross grant funding of £34m (Q2 2015/16: £90m) in line with network build in the quarter, we have also deferred £21m (Q2 2015/16: £28m) of the total grant funding to reflect higher take-up levels on a number of contracts. To date we have deferred £292m.

Now let’s take a closer look at BT’s different divisions.

BT Consumer / Retail

As highlighted in the first paragraph, BT’s consumer division has continued to add new broadband customers and fibre growth improved over the previous quarter. The positive movement most likely reflects a combination of attractive special offers / advertising, as well as students signing up for new contracts after the summer and an initial subsiding of fears around the Brexit vote.

Broadband Subs TV Subs Mobile Subs + EE
Fibre Subs
Q3 2016 TOTAL
9,193,000 1,684,000 30,248,000 4,473,000
Subs Change (Q3) +76,000 +64,000 -20,000 +216,000
Q2 2016 TOTAL
9,117,000 1,620,000 30,268,000 4,257,000
Subs Change (Q2) +76,000 +59,000 -177,000 +181,000

It’s worth pointing out that BT’s own customers continue to account for the lion’s share of “fibre broadband” (FTTC/P) subscribers on Openreach’s national network, but we’ll cover that below.

Openreach & Wholesale

The results from Openreach are very useful because they offer an overview of the wider market, at least in respect to BT’s national UK network and those independent ISPs that buy services over it (i.e. the total broadband and “fibre” lines below combine customers from BT Consumer and many other ISPs that buy their lines from Openreach).

Note: Unbundled (LLU) lines are mostly used by ISPs (e.g. TalkTalk and Sky Broadband) that have installed some of their own kit inside Openreach’s network in order to gain more control over their own products and services. In that sense MPF lines are more popular because they afford ISPs the most control and flexibility to differentiate themselves.

Total UK Broadband Lines
Fully Unbundled MPF Lines
Shared Unbundled SMPF Lines
Fibre Lines (FTTC/P)
Q3 2016 TOTAL
20,119,000 8,950,000 1,094,000 6,679,000
Subs Change (Q3) +116,000 +16,000 +27,000 +440,000
Q2 2016 TOTAL
20,003,000 8,934,000 1,067,000 6,239,000
Subs Change (Q2) +95,000 +13,000 +8,000 +333,000

Perhaps the most interesting figure to take away from Openreach’s summary is the quarterly increase of +440K in new “fibre broadband” (FTTC/P) lines, which of course includes the +216K added via BT’s Consumer division. In other words, BT’s retail rivals (e.g. Sky, TalkTalk, Zen Internet etc.) accounted for +224K of the total quarterly increase (up sharply from +152K the previous quarter). We should also point out that the SMPF total above includes external fibre services on BT WLR (Wholesale Line Rental) lines.

Separately, BTWholesale delivered a total of just 882,000 external broadband lines for other ISPs, which has fallen by -3,000 in the quarter.

Gavin Patterson, CEO of BT Group, said:

“This is a positive set of results, both operationally and financially, and we remain on track to achieve our full year outlook. We’ve made good progress on the integration of EE and the delivery of our synergy targets. Our consumer facing lines of business have performed well, but in the enterprise space, UK public sector continues to be a challenging market.

Across the group, we continue to drive cost reduction and productivity improvements. Customer experience remains a key priority, and we’re stepping up our investments in the second half of the year. And we’ll continue to invest in our ultrafast and 4G plans in 2017 and beyond.

Ofcom’s consultation on the Digital Communications Review closed earlier this month; we’ve submitted our response and will continue to engage with Ofcom to reach the best outcome for the UK.”

Overshadowing today’s report is of course the question of Openreach’s future. In an ideal world Ofcom and the BT Group would have reached a voluntary agreement by now, but instead both sides appear to have become entrenched, not least over the endlessly divisive issue of governance.

On one hand the regulator wants Openreach to become a “legally separate company“, which would be accountable to BT’s board (not BT Group’s CEO) and could make its own investment decisions. On the other hand BT views this as going too far and they’re worried about the related costs / risks of moving staff and pension liabilities to the “new” company (BT’s pension deficit is a staggering £9.5bn net of tax!).

Ofcom could of course push the nuclear button and force through a full separation, but that is likely to trigger a complicated divorce and would surely attract a lot of lawyers. In the end this remains the single most important issue for the BT Group to resolve and until they do then any progress in other areas might not attract as much attention.

Speaking of progress in other areas, BT also confirmed that its move to answer 90% of customer service / support calls in the United Kingdom has now completed. Similarly EE has answered 100% of EE postpaid calls in its UK and Ireland contact centres.

On the subject of EE, the mobile business has now expanded its geographic 4G network coverage to 70% of the UK (98% population coverage) and they aim to reach 92% by September 2017, followed by 95% by the end of December 2020. The 4G customer base also reached 17.6 million.

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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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36 Responses
  1. Avatar Steve Jones

    One little embarrassment in the latest figures

    “BT said it booked a £145m non-cash charge in the second quarter related to its Italian division due to “inappropriate management behaviour” that had triggered “historic accounting errors”.”

    Hmm. I wonder what has been going on there. That said

    Of course the running sore that is the relationship between OR and the rest of BT overshadows the whole of this along with the huge pension deficit (something which is, incidentally, a shadow over much of the stockmarket – the cumulative pension deficit to UK companies is now the equivalent of about one-third of GDP).

    OR’s regulated prices do not allow for any contribution to cover the pension deficit (which is not the position taken by other regulators). Sky, TalkTalk and Vodafone would like nothing better than to see the BT group (without OR) encumbered with that responsibility for the pension deficit.

    I do wonder if the BT board would, if a split seemed inevitable, seek to turn it round the other way. That is BT group would remain, but only as the core, regulated businesses, with the other parts of BT (BT Consumer, EE, Global Services) floated off and without the current burden of regulation. They would seek to leave the “core” BT with the ultimate responsibility of the pension scheme, regulatory burden and a considerable part of the corporate debt. No doubt some form of capital payment would be required to buy this new outfit out of its part of the pension deficit, but it would at least be freed from any future call.

    The advantage of this would probably be that it would remove from this (relatively lightly regulated) part of BT the prospect of the uncertainty of the scope of the pension scheme deficit. Also, Ofcom might have to look more carefully at the financing of this deficit as part

    It might cost the rest of BT perhaps £3bn or so to buy its way out of the liability (most BT pensioners are related to the OR due to historical employment patterns), but that might be a bargain. It can be offset against taxes and its a good time to borrow at low rates.

    So, if this split became a political necessity, best do it on your own terms than one dictated by a regulator compelled to accede to the demands of politicians and competitors.

    • Avatar GNewton

      @Steve Jones: I understand your worries about BT’s huge pension deficit. However, nobody forces you to have shares with this company. The long term prospects for this company aren’t rosy, especially in view of current regulatory and general framework imposed upon it by the government.

      I have to disagree with your idea that an independent Openreach should take onboard the major part of the pension burden. Rather the opposite is true: The remainder part of BT should take over the pensions, but in exchange for getting full freedom to conduct its business with regulations from Ofcom etc.

    • Avatar GNewton

      correction: “…to conduct its business without regulations from Ofcom…”

    • Avatar Steve Jones

      @GNewton

      There can be no arbitrary division of the responsibility for the pension deficit. The fairest system must surely be based on historical employment patterns. Note, I’m not arguing that the organisation that I’m talking about should walk away (Philip Green like) from its responsibility, just that it’s able to buy its way out of a fair share of its liabilities. I’m sure that is the basis on which courts would determine. Why, for example, should the EE part of BT bear any responsibility for past BT pensions as their employees were never in that scheme? Why should the GS part of BT (most of whose employees were never part of the scheme) bear that.

      So I repeat. Do the liability on historical employment patterns. The great majority of BT pensioners were part of the business that built and ran the telephone system, not these later businesses. It’s the fairest way.

      In any event, its a line the BT board can pursue if necessary.

    • Avatar Steve Jones

      @GTNewton

      Incidentally, what on earth could the possible legal justification be for BT (without OR) being more lightly regulated in return for accepting the pension liability? The legal justification for the current tight regulation of BT is that it has SMP in certain markets, which are virtually entirely to do with the fixed network infrastructure. If BT was stripped of that infrastructure, it would not have SMP in any other market areas and could not, therefore, be regulated any more tightly than (say) Sky, TalkTalk or Vodafone.

      You seem to have no idea that these things are governed by legal principles. They aren’t some arbitrary system.

    • Avatar FibreFred

      Interesting idea Steve, even a new company being formed and those units sold off to the new company

      What Mr Newton fails to understand is that the burden is openreachs responsibility for the vast majority just based on the fact that it is the “original” BT, none of the other units existed when BT was sold off, they were all created post sale

  2. Avatar Steve Jones

    @FibreFred

    Whilst those other outfits didn’t exist at the time of privatisation, I suspect that if you look into it, that some of the staff could be considered to have been part of the new businesses. There would have been people who worked on customer-facing roles that would broadly be part of BT Consumer. Also, the period between privatisation and now involved a large number of people moving into those new businesses. It’s just where is the split. There has to be some basis, and not the self-serving idea that Sky, TalkTalk have that it would be based on current turnover split (which, even before EE was incorporated, would have left OR with only about one-third of the liability).

    The new business I was thinking of could be achieved by the sort of split that we saw when O2 was floated off (although that was a great deal easier as the old Cellnet operation was entirely separate from BT as it was a joint venture with Securicor albeit the latter brought precisely nothing to the business save make a fat profit when BT bought them out of their share). I don’t think selling it off would work for the shareholders as they’d end up with an OR fat with cash which would be difficult to extract without big tax liabilities. Also, it would be an open invitation for the regulator to press for that to be spent on capex. I couldn’t see the shareholders agreeing to that. However, they might well agree to having shares in this new company made up of BT Consumer, EE and GS with, maybe, a rights issue to buy its way out of its share of the pension liability.

    • Avatar GNewton

      @Steve Jones: The markets, and technologies, change all the time, and with it the need to form new business divisions and close down old ones. The overall pension burdens should be associated with the BT Group, not it’s individual current divisions or businesses. You can’t just spend excessive amounts of money into new ventures while at the same time neglecting your pension scheme responsibilities. At the same time, BT Group (minus Openreach) needs more flexibility, without severe regulatory restrictions from Ofcom, in order to prosper.

      Openreach needs to become completely independent company, becoming a sort of a national infrastructure company, more along the lines of a utility company.

      As I said, if you are that much worried about the pension burdens, nobody forces you to be BT shareholder, there are better investment opportunities available.

    • Avatar FibreFred

      Well you are the expert in this field GNewton, I guess we’ll see what happens.

    • Avatar Steve Jones

      @GNewton

      You may choose to believe that, but Ofcom know otherwise. If you care to read Ofcom’s reports, you will find that they explicitly allow that BT group will require access to continuing cash flow from OR for the purpose of meeting that deficit. The argument is how it’s split. Further, Ofcom also allow for BT Group having access to OR cashflow for the purpose of funding dividends, but again the detail is unknown.

      In any event, my proposal is one that the BT board might want to consider to pre-empt any separation on their own terms, rather than ones forced upon them. These are private assets, and there would have to be legal grounds to challenge any approach as I’ve set out.

      Your proposal seems simply to be that OR will simply stop having any responsibility of the pension deficit. Of course, that is possible, but only at the cost of OR buying themselves out of their share of the pension deficit. That would mean OR having to raise money by some mixture of bank loans, bonds or some form of rights issue. Given the way that auditors will look at the split of liabilities it will definitely run into several billion pounds. I suspect at least £5bn, but possible considerably more. Even TalkTalk and Sky allow for some responsibility accruing to OR for the pension deficit, although they will argue about its basis.

      I’ll say again. The split of pension liability on a fair basis is a job for auditors and courts, not BT competitors, or your, frankly, ridiculous idea that OR will have no responsibility. There is another complication (noted by Ofcom) that the Crown Guarantee is only legally applicable to the continuing entity that is BT Group (however renamed). It’s simply a matter of which part of the separated business that will carry that ultimate responsibility. I think you’ll find that (reading the pension scheme trustee’s submission) they have particular concerns that Ofcom do not compromise this, or access to a viable business to fill what is a very large deficit. If the trustees do not get an acceptable solution, it is within their rights to demand that deficit is addressed more immediately (namely by a huge cash injection). That could imperil the whole thing if it hit the courts as it could greatly delay and separation. It’s not an idle threat; they will already have lawyers briefed to look at any Ofcom proposals. At the moment they’ve agreed that the gap be filled in the longer term, but that could easily change if the circumstances change too.

    • Avatar Steve Jones

      @GNewton

      This is the Ofcom proposal, why your idea that OR can just be absolved of any responsibility for the pension deficit.

      In particular, see the following paragraphs

      1.28
      1.3
      4.10
      4.73
      4.79
      and all of
      5.3 to 5.26

      This is all based on the half-way house Ofcom recommendation of establishing a OR as a separate company owned by BT, let alone what a full separation would entail. That’s even before getting into all the other non-pension things that have to be sorted out to entailing heaven-knows how much cost, all of which will be borne by shareholders. Ofcom allude to a lot of these even in this model.

      https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0022/76243/strengthening-openreachs-strategic-and-operational-independence.pdf

    • Avatar GNewton

      @Steve Jones: Thank you for your explanations. So it is BT Group then who caries the pension burden, isn’t it?

      BT used to be a telephony company years ago (when these pension funds were created), today it’s quite a different business (media, ISP, other services), with the original landline telephony part only playing a minor role now. The idea of mapping the pension burden according to the former roles of retired employees is quite difficult. BT Group overall needs more flexibilities, less regulation, to thrive, which in turn helps to serve it pension requirements. Openreach needs to be exempted from this as much as possible, becoming a separate company, still being under regulation because it will own important utility-like infrastructure. The broadband infrastructure is too important for this country, and holding it to ransom by BT Group shareholders must be prevented.

      In an ideal world there wouldn’t be a BT Group, but the mess is there, created by former governments, and it needs to be addressed!

    • Avatar TheFacts

      @GN – and your proposal, in some detail, is?

    • Avatar GNewton

      @TheFacts: Basically an independent Openreach, see the PDF document, except it should have a lower pension burden to carry forward, because it needs enough breathing space for infrastructure investment.

    • Avatar AndyH

      How do you propose a lower pension burden? Many many companies will be interested in this…

    • Avatar GNewton

      @AndyH: See the PDF document. The BT Pension Scheme (BTPS) needs to be ratained in its entirety with British Telecommunications plc (BT plc). It’s just the idea of splitting it according to historical employment patterns which won’t necessarily work. Also, the Crown guarantee refers to BT plc, not to other companies.

    • Avatar FibreFred

      So basically, GNewton has no idea of his own so… he jumps on the Ofcom proposal that has been posted up.

      How obvious, funny he never mentioned it before

    • Avatar Evan Crissall

      Countering the claims from the numerous BT trolls here, is a report written by Mercer and commissioned by BT rivals Sky, TalkTalk and Vodafone.

      Mercer is BT’s former pension advisor, so should know their stuff.

      The authors of the Mercer report argue the exact opposite to BT — that its yawning pension deficit is no deterrent to separating Openreach from the rest of the Group.

      From an article by Nic Fildes, Telecoms Correspondent, in the Financial Times (Oct 4, 2016) :-

      “Mercer argues that Openreach could apply to become a “participating member” of the BT Pension Scheme, which would mean that the trustees would have a direct claim on Openreach and BT Plc for support. Trustees could also be given a stronger claim against Openreach assets, under the terms of a transfer guarantee, and could seek external insurance for the scheme, at a cost in the low hundreds of thousands of pounds, to replace the Crown guarantee.

      Andrew Griffiths, chief operating officer of Sky, said: “No one should hide behind the pensions issue. A report by leading pension experts Mercer concludes the BT pension scheme should not be a barrier to the separation of Openreach.”

      Mercer was appointed as a strategic partner to BT Pension Scheme Management in 2010. It declined to comment, as did Ofcom.”

      https://www.ft.com/content/0992653c-8a46-11e6-8cb7-e7ada1d123b1

    • Avatar FibreFred

      Yawn that report has already been countered

    • Avatar Evan Crissall

      It has? By whom? The BT trolls?

      Officially, neither BT nor Ofcom have even commented on the Mercer report into an Openreach split and the pension black hole.

  3. Avatar NGA for all

    The capital deferral for rural is now £292m. So has the clawback topped out and capital owed is now being added? Invoices presented for £34m worth of work in the quarter but BT needs to put aside £21m for monies owed in some form.
    The opportunity to transform rural networking with those resources is huge. If £34m a represents a run rate for a quarter, then the £292m represents 2 years worth of work owed to the state.

    • Avatar Steve Jones

      “If £34m a represents a run rate for a quarter, then the £292m represents 2 years worth of work owed to the state.”

      No it absolutely does not. What it means is £292m that can be reinvested should BDUK local projects decide to do so. There is no work owed to the state, their is just the possibility of reinvesting it. If it is reinvested under the existing contracts it will be against the existing call-off contracts for each project which will inevitably mean that it will cost more per premises connected.

      So yes, it’s an opportunity, but it’s simply that. It is the working of the contract that was agreed. It’s wholly up to the local BDUK projects what they do. There is no “owing” or two year’s work just the potential to gap-finance more work.

    • Avatar NGA for all

      @Steve, either the money goes into the network, or gets repaid, so it is owed. BT could have planned a more aggressive upgrade, and there is so much more to come.

  4. Avatar Evan Crissall

    Mark neatly overlooks the dramatic slump in BT earnings (down 10%), its free-falling share price (down 25%) and the “elephant in the room” – the ballooning pension deficit (£9.5bn)- on which the financial press is focusing in depth.

    http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/markets/article-3879038/BT-sales-soar-35-shares-hit-ballooning-pension-deficit.html

    • Avatar AndyH

      Perhaps you should re-read the results.

      Revenue increased 35%, profit up 5%.

    • Avatar Steve Jones

      The pension deficit is, indeed a drag on the share price, and it’s having a massive impact across dozens of FTSE firms with historic defined benefit pension schemes. It’s partly the result of demographic trends but, more immediately, central bank policies on interest rates and the process of QE which is killing bond yields.

      In addition, uncertainties Ofcom strategic review is having a major impact. Whatever the outcome, it seems it will introduce a lot of extra cost into the business due to restructuring and possible increases in pension contribution demanded by trustees, all of which will be paid for indirectly by the shareholders.

      The increased level of capital expenditure in OpenReach will also increase long term costs as it works its way into increased depreciation costs, all against what is pretty well guaranteed (by regulation) a fairly flat revenue stream.

    • Avatar GNewton

      @Steve Jones: There is always the nuclear option for Ofcom, forcing BT Group to make Openreach an independent company. This would of course result in intense legal battles, as you explained.

      But this could a blessing in disguise: Because of the legal issues and uncertainties over BT and Openreach, investments will be hold back into these companies, possibly for years, dragging BT Group down. This however could open up many opportunities for new or alternative telecom companies who would build their own fibre networks, and many communities and businesses would finally look for alternative solutions.

    • Avatar FibreFred

      How is the alternative universe on this fine morning? Where are these new or alternative fibre network builders now?

      You simply don’t have any grasp on the subject gnewton, all of your rose tinted suggestions are formed out of one thing, a hatred of BT any facts figures and comparisons of similar break ups are moot as you need to see BT punished.

      Why not just get on and enjoy life ?

    • Avatar AndyH

      @ Gnewton – What you say makes no sense. If there are uncertainties over the Openreach/BT network, then no one will invest to build their own alternative networks on a national level.

      Can you give any other examples in Europe of network providers with no infrastructure suddenly building their own fibre networks on a national level?

    • Avatar FibreFred

      He can’t provide any examples because his vision is fiction (his own dream) and not based on any real world facts.

      When challenged his replies turn into riddles and finally when he’s exhausted the argument (for now) you’ll see a “cant do attitude” reply which means he’s had enough.

      Then you’ll see the same comments repeated in a new article in a day or two.

    • Avatar GNewton

      @AndyH: You don’t have to look at other countries. We already see examples of alternative fibre networks being built in the UK, e.g. Hyperoptic, Gigaclear, VM, etc. Ofcom’s “nuclear option” would probably be not ideal scenario, but if it did, things wouldn’t look so bleak either, certainly not the way as claimed by some here.

      BTW.: Please ignore FibreFred, he’s back to his usual insults here!

    • Avatar AndyH

      Are Hyperoptic, Gigaclear capable of spending billions on a national FTTP network?

  5. Avatar 125uS

    I don’t think any of those other network builders have done much in the way of rural provision GN, and that’s the gap. The B4xx guys have done some but it requires volunteers and favours to make the finances stack up.

    Your comment about communities looking for alternative solutions is intriguing – the reason that roll-out is so hard to justify financially is the small number of people who actually want to pay for better broadband. Given the choice between ‘OK’ at £20 a month and ‘awesome’ at £30 a month, the majority opt for OK.

    If Lamborghini haven’t opened a showroom in your neighbourhood it’s not because they’re trying to restrict the availability of supercars, it’s because there are enough people willing to pay the extra over the cost of a normal car to make the exercise worthwhile.

    • Avatar FibreFred

      Hyperoptic have done zero rural, they are very specific and target MDU’s

      VM don’t do rural

      Gigaclear do but again it is very specific they have to meet their take up target otherwise they are not interested, which is fair enough, they are a business

      So… agreed not good examples

  6. Avatar fastman

    Vm are only building now after nothing for years and most of their expansion is reachout from what they actually have — I think there price per accoriding to some published information at the time around project lighning was some thing close to £1000 per premise based on project cost and number premises expected to pass

    • Avatar Ignition

      Think it’s around 650-700 quid per premises passed on the average.

      8-9 times the capital expenditure per premises on FTTC.

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