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Openreach Toughen Whereabouts Stance for Altnet UK Broadband Engineers UPDATE

Saturday, Jun 29th, 2024 (9:51 am) - Score 10,400
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Openreach (BT) has begun the process of toughening up their stance on compliance with their “whereabouts” rules. This could see them taking further contractual action against alternative UK broadband networks (altnets) that struggle to reach the necessary 90% performance threshold, which might eventually include restrictions on network access.

Just to give this the necessary context. Openreach’s regulated Physical Infrastructure Access (PIA) product, which enables rivals to run their own fibre optic broadband cables over or through Openreach’s existing poles and cable ducts, includes a “mandatory requirement” for related contractors to record their “whereabouts” when working on or in their network.

NOTE: Openreach does not disclose compliance rates among its own engineers.

Openreach does this out of a concern that a company which is surveying or installing new cables using their network could accidentally damage other cables (either Openreach’s or an altnet’s), thus they need information which helps them to resolve the knock-on issues from that damage quickly. Basically, who is working on their network and when they’re working is important from a service quality, safety and public liability perspective.

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Such a record typically includes the name of the contractor on site, their contact number, details of the activity being undertaken (e.g. overhead survey), date and time attending site (this can be up to 7 days in advance from the day of submission), postcode, street name and, if available, the street works permit or notice number.

Openreach’s Whereabouts Description

The recording of your contractor whereabouts when working on or in our network is important and necessary to enable us to ensure the integrity of our network and quickly identify if unauthorised personnel are accessing it e.g. in the case of cable theft.

This will also enable audits to take place and it will provide an audit trail for both you and us should any damage or highway breach occur. The completion of Whereabouts also enables us to check and complete checks to confirm that the contractor’s operatives are accredited for the work they are undertaking and they must have their identification at all times.

This is an important process, albeit perhaps one that often seems to be much more about assigning responsibility and related record keeping than network attack or cable theft prevention (i.e. criminals aren’t going to fill in a form to make your life as an operator any easier) – see our earlier summary. In addition, it’s not usually the engineers themselves that submit the whereabouts details, unless the altnet has bespoke tooling for interfacing with Openreach’s map tool.

Last year saw CityFibre being singled out as one altnet that was struggling the most with compliance, which suggested that around half of the jobs they had completed by the end of October 2023 had no whereabouts information (here). CF later informed ISPreview that their compliance against closed jobs (NOIs / Notice of Intent) was 54%, but this kind of figure does come with other caveats.

Altnets are typically only required to complete whereabouts information when accessing the network on a main (Primary) NOI. If that company is installing in more than one duct in the same area using PIA, further whereabouts information is not required because the equipment is all installed at the same time (i.e. it makes little sense to record four visits when only one has happened).

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However, because a user of PIA records only one visit, the Openreach systems show one visit yet may show more than one piece of infrastructure installed – giving an incorrect impression that there is a significant non-compliance. Openreach did acknowledge this issue at the time. CityFibre also suggested that its own calculations were averaging over 71% compliance in 2023 (the OTA is said to have suggested that anything over 70% is good), although Openreach’s rules seek 90%.

A CityFibre spokesperson told ISPreview in Jan 2024:

BT Openreach’s whereabouts report, from which this data is sourced, is fundamentally flawed as it significantly under-reports compliance. We have shared this concern with Openreach as we believe our compliance to be over 70%, a level the OTA have suggested should be considered ‘good’.”

In any case, Openreach has been working with their PIA partners (altnets) for quite some time to find solutions to issues of low compliance, which is a tedious area because altnets often perceive Openreach’s own position – acting as both a supplier and competitor to them – as being potentially conflicted (here). But ultimately it is a commercial decision for Openreach to decide how it enforces the contracts they have with other operators (any competition issues that might arise from this would be a matter for Ofcom).

What’s new?

The latest change is that Openreach recently began informally contacting altnets that are still below the agreed 90% threshold for whereabouts compliance in the hope of understanding what they’re doing to improve that. The focus, for now, seems to be on taking a more co-operative approach. But if compliance remains below 90% by September 2024 then they will issue a formal request for an improvement plan from related providers.

The target seems to be to get providers above the 90% threshold by the very end of 2024 and, if that doesn’t happen, then Openreach would reserve the right to take further contractual action (if it’s needed). But the network operator is understood to be minded against an enforcement approach (with good reason – see below) and, in any case, they haven’t yet decided on precisely how they might enforce it.

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However, at an extreme, it is possible that some altnets could face restrictions that might hamper their access to Openreach’s network in certain areas. But the risk for Openreach in doing this is that it could trigger a bigger clash, which might drag in Ofcom by becoming a competition issue (hence why strict enforcement is something best avoided).

Katie Milligan, Chief Commercial Officer at Openreach, said:

“We’re continuing to work closely with the industry, the OTA and Ofcom to make sure that any work happening on our network is recorded properly and completed safely and securely.”

At the same time, it’s VERY important to note that this isn’t merely one of those simplistic Openreach vs altnets style issues. In fact, quite a few altnets already achieve strong compliance with the whereabouts rules and a fair few of the complaints are often levelled by them against other altnets, which have poor compliance and thus cause problems for more than just Openreach (e.g. we do see a fair few gripes from other altnets about CityFibre).

Vorboss CEO, Tim Creswick, told ISPreview:

“Access to Openreach ducts and poles has revolutionised internet access for businesses and consumers in the UK, creating new networks and new retail providers, and driving competition. It shouldn’t have taken this long to start enforcing rules – it’s being treated like a free ride by some altnets and their contractors, and that jeopardises every provider, and their customers.

The overuse of third-party contractors is a major contributor to this lack of compliance, which is why we’ve always used our own in-house trained teams. This change will rightly challenge those that aren’t delivering a high quality product, and get the attention of investors.”

So for now the approach is a softer one of encouragement and co-operation, which will hopefully find some fair and balanced solutions to improving compliance (Openreach may need to make some changes on their side too). But we’ll be keeping an eye out during early 2025 for what happens and if this effort fails to produce the desired outcome.

UPDATE 1st July 2024 @ 9:55am:

We’ve added a comment above from London focused altnet provider Vorboss.

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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 X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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Comments
10 Responses
  1. Avatar photo Ben Knock says:

    As an altnet engineer, city fibre lack any consideration for our equipment, pushing equipment to the bottom, breaking fibres and cutting others to pull in theirs, they need to be kicked out! They cry about access then disregard anyone elses access.

  2. Avatar photo Big Dave says:

    I’ve seen altnet contractors working on Openreach infrastructure, opening manholes without putting barriers around etc. Time Openreach cracked down on them.

    1. Avatar photo Webber says:

      More than 3 times now I’ve had to go out and put a manhole cover back on that has been abandoned next to a chamber by a Openreach contractor. Its not just altnets using PIA who are causing safety issues its also Openreach employed contractors as well.

    2. Avatar photo Big Dave says:

      @Webber

      Yes have to agree with you on that. But I think it is mainly the contractors rather than Openreach’s own guys that are mainly responsible, the guy from Kelly’s who did my install was decidedly somewhat cavalier about H&S (mind you most of the installs round here now seem to be done by M J Quinn – make of that what you will).

    3. Avatar photo Anon says:

      @Big Dave – sadly it isn’t mainly the contractors or at least round here it is not, Openreach’s own staff routinely ignore the correct procedures and H&S laws.

      I can see the manhole where one of their CBTs is from my office window. Twice recently we’ve seen a pair of Openreach contractors opening the manhole with no gas test and not using a roller, same engineers have then failed to guard the hole correctly and have trailed the fibre cable over the road, across a right of way and onto private land they had no permission to be on.

      On one day the above happened I was then travelling on the M1 where we had one Openreach Engineer tailgating people and dangerously changing lanes at the last minute to get onto the M62 and another happily with his phone in his hand driving down the M1. To complete the set was the third Openreach van towing a cable drum tailer with no visible number plate.

      The above level of issues do not occur unless there is a poor culture around compliance and H&S in the company, so Openreach may wish to be careful what they wish for.

      Oh and to be balanced the worst I did see was a Kelly’s install gang installing for VMO2 who left the manhole open and unguarded for about 2 hours.

  3. Avatar photo Rik says:

    It’s only right that Openreach should know who is working on their network and where so that when things go wrong, and often do, they can ensure service issues are resolved as quickly as possible.

  4. Avatar photo Facts says:

    Openreach have a cheek regarding damaging their equipment. Happens a lot on PIA network where they damage altnets also footage of direct labour and subbies damaging other providers MDU cabling on purpose (2 seperate occasions as well)…

    They hate altnets using PIA and are quick to snitch on their Workplace Facebook. I can admit some subcontractors quality of work on PIA is shocking but pot kettle from quality I’ve seen from them.

    1. Avatar photo Me says:

      I agree and I would say this reads partly as a way for open Reach to control the competition it faces and their reach. Open Reach has the monopoly by far and seems to have a lot of legal rights to control competitors. Plus their engineers aren’t exactly the most considerate. I remember years ago when I moved into a flat and had no telephone, Open Reach engineer came in and found cross wiring in the joint box in a cupboard, they just ripped the wires out and connected just my line leaving the others disconnected, I said but what about my neighbours? To which the engineer replied ‘not my problem’. That was an official Open Reach engineer, not all are like that but some dislike fixing faults on other providers services using their equipment, which Open Reach has always insisted only their engineers are allowed to touch and repair.

  5. Avatar photo Fibre Guru says:

    Totally agree with Openreach here but they must also
    police the damage done to alt-net networks and suspend the culprits. From my personal experience even when using offset chambers, MOBRA bars inside OR chambers and building a legal network, damage still occurred. My main issue is that OR didn’t care one bit about punishing the culprits who were doing the damage. Is that now going to change or is it just to help ORs competitive position and they will only focus on their direct competitors.

  6. Avatar photo Sam says:

    90% is absurd when considering their own paperwork

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