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What3words Helps Openreach to Pinpoint UK Network Damage

Tuesday, May 11th, 2021 (3:46 pm) - Score 6,888
damaged bt fttc street cabinet

Openreach has begun using What3words to help find damage to broadband ISP cabinets, telephone poles and overhead wires across the UK. In case readers don’t know, W3W is a geocode system that essentially reduces any location with a resolution of about 3 metres down to being described via three dictionary words.

For example, Openreach’s London HQ is recorded via What3words as “lock.factor.tall“, while their Peterborough engineer training school can be found via “casino.memo.jacket” and BT’s Ipswich based R&D facility, Adastral Park, becomes the comically ridiculous “lollipop.texted.slime“.

what3words example

Admittedly, people reading in different languages will get a different set of words for the same spot and anything occupying a square bigger than 3 metres will of course have multiple references under the W3W approach, but it’s often just a case of picking the most logical square and using that.

In Openreach’s case its sometimes necessary to provide the exact coordinates in order to find some of their more tediously placed rural kit, but that could potentially be made easier by W3W.

Peter Stewart, Openreach’s UK Operations Director for Service Delivery, said:

“This should make a huge difference to how safety issues and damage to our network are reported to us and how easy they are to find quickly. We have the largest phone and broadband network in the UK, used by hundreds of different service providers, covering everything from city centres to the most rural and remote locations. Many of our poles and overhead wires are in areas with no easily identifiable features nearby, so it can be tricky for people to report exactly which pole has been knocked over or which overhead wire is damaged.

People can report damage to our network directly to us, but any faults with home or business connections should still be directed to their service provider (the company they pay their bill to) as they can easily distinguish between problems affecting our network and all the common issues that might arise inside a home or business – for example faulty routers, hubs and wifi extenders.

We’ve seen what3words used successfully by emergency services, where the ability for people to report the precise location of an incident has literally saved lives. And whilst a damaged pole or cabinet might not seem like a case of life or death, safety of the public and our people is hugely important to us, and our network is a key part of the UK’s infrastructure, keeping homes, businesses and health/emergency services connected.

To use what3words, you simply need to visit the app or website and make a note of the three words (e.g. darling.lion.race) that pinpoint your chosen location. When you report speak to Openreach, just let us know these three words, and we’ll take care of the rest.”

Openreach’s engineers and their customer facing teams are now all able to use what3words and members of the public can report vandalism, damaged equipment or safety concerns by visiting Openreach’s website, contacting Openreach’s Twitter or Facebook teams or by calling 0800 023 2023 (Option 1).

Leave a Comment
21 Responses
  1. Ethel Prunehat says:

    There’s room for improvement here. I used this last month to report a rocking footway box cover. I gave the details to their inane “chatbot” thing, then was asked all the same questions again by an actual human, who didn’t seem to be familiar with a what3words address. It does eventually work though, there’s been some orange plastic barriers cable tied to the frame around it since the day I reported it.

  2. Jim H says:

    Oh dear. You’d think Openreach would do some due diligence.



    This thing is outright dangerous for safety of life stuff. It’s a mad idea for critical infrastructure. Label your stuff properly, maintain it properly, and accept grid references or latitude or longitude or browser location hooks for GPS or… yeah. Not rocket science, this. Just w3w trying to stem their losses (about 15 million quid last year) with marketing, marketing, and more marketing.

    1. goose.senders.misfits says:

      With so many words in the dictionary it is unbelievable they used plurals! A pretty good idea that’s fundamentally flawed. Doh.

    2. LPP says:

      Openreach have all that for every bit of equipment. They can navigate to any pole or box in the country straight away. The issue is getting the general public to communicate effectively where they are. GPS coordinates can be used if the person reporting has that ability to provide the information, they just often don’t.

    3. A_Builder says:

      Or is it just a pragmatic response to an issue by opening another channel of communication?

      The idea that you number / bar code / QR code Edwardian iron frames manhole covers is a bit of a joke TBH.

      This approach should be tried as at least the public are reasonably familiar with it, it is not bespoke. It just might deliver so service improvements.

    4. Squidgy says:

      Openreach use and have to is grid references and easting/northings as well as post code, NAD and address indetifiers. Now they also have access to w3w which is easily accessible and understandable to the general public. The emergency services are already using w3w, so it seems logical for utilities to do the same.

    5. Z says:

      But they send lawyers letters to people that share an open source version inspired by their code ..

  3. Granola says:

    Make it “What6words” by sending an adjacent square as well ?

  4. Graham Owens says:

    why not just give you the GPS coordinates? why introduce another step into the process, I mean you are ooenreach, you kind of should be used to dealing with numbers. what a waste of time and resources trying to fix a non existent problem.

    1. LPP says:

      Openreach do use GPS coordinates. W3W is primarily there for the general public to inform using a generally easy method and have it work 99% of the time. This site tends to have a more tech savvy crowd where getting and communicating GPS coordinates wouldn’t be an issue. I know if I asked my mum to give the Coords for the pole outside her house she wouldn’t know where to get that information.

  5. Tim Dadd says:

    Why not just put a QR code on everything which immediately opens a Web page with the cabinet ID eg THWO.101 and then just ask to upload picture and select problem from a drop down list?

    1. SM says:

      If the equipment has been badly damaged, the outer casing and QR code or similar may simply no longer exist. Also do they really add a QR code to every cover in the road/path?

      That said, I don’t support w3w at all. Far too many issues with it, and everyone using their map/app in a different language has their own set of 3 words per square. Nice idea, not going to work how it is.

    2. Squidgy says:

      I think that was tried but they were easily damaged/defaced

  6. Alex says:

    Haters in full flow here!
    As usual where Openreach is concerned. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

    1. T says:

      Amen. Keyboard warriors who would solely run Openreach better than anyone else on their own.

  7. Optimist says:

    Surely it must be possible for a gizmo to be installed in each cabinet to issue an alert to HQ when it detects interference or damage (rather like a burglar alarm)? When the cabinet is in full working order it would issue an OK signal at reguar intervals.

    1. PW says:

      If only Openreach had access to some kind of network infrastructure that would allow those heartbeats to get back to HQ… 🙂

    2. TB says:

      This is the case with DSLAMs where open doors are an issue, however most damage reports are for broken lids (where vehicles have driven over them), damaged overhead cables and trees in contact with cables. Not always easy to locate when the given address is usually something like “half way down Green Road” etc..

  8. Hugh Mann says:

    Wow it’s almost as if we don’t have global positioning systems accurate down to 1 metre and instead need to use some app by some company for stuff.


  9. Nick Roberts says:

    The number of cabinets round here (NW London) you see, unattended, with access doors swinging open for weeks on end. Either vandalism or somebody thinking they can make their own unofficial tap.

    As previous posters have said, OR have installed these cabinets without an active asset monitoring system in place ? e.g. a regular reporting signal, which if not received or received with out-of-envelope parameters, tasks any OR engineer in the area to investigate. Don’t believe it. Shareholders wouldn’t be happy.

    Give the OR boys something to do.

    Recently, saw my first “Bacon sarny” congregation of OR engineers – 3 vans, oarked-up in a side-Street, nothing obvious going on.

    Is there a three word code for this ? Should it be reported, or will the van trackers already be on the job ?

  10. Caroline says:

    This is a company that installed my fiber broadband in my neighbour’s house. So anything that helps.

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