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BT’s Openreach network should become a “distinct company” within the BT Group as part of reform proposals put forward by telecoms regulator Ofcom which fall short of recommending a sell-off.

The telecoms giant has faced calls for Openreach to be split off from the rest of the company.

But in a long awaited report Ofcom instead proposes major reform of the division of BT that develops and maintains the UK’s main telecoms network used by telephone and broadband providers such as Sky, TalkTalk, Vodafone and BT Consumer.

The proposals include making Openreach a distinct company with its own board, including a majority of non-executive directors not affiliated to BT Group.

It also proposes greater consultation with customers on large-scale investments, its own staff working for Openreach, ownership of assets that it already controls, its own strategy and control over budget allocation, and independent branding.

Sharon White, Ofcom chief executive, said: “We’re pressing ahead with the biggest shake-up of telecoms in a decade, to make sure the market is delivering the best possible services for people and business across the UK.”

The current structure of BT was introduced by Ofcom in 2005.

But the watchdog said that although it has delivered benefits such as stronger competition, it means BT retains influence over significant Openreach decisions and has an incentive to make these decisions in the interests of its own retail businesses, rather than competitors.

Ofcom, which is seeking views on the plans by 4 October, said the new model “would provide Openreach with the greatest degree of independence from BT Group that is possible without incurring the costs and disruption – to industry and consumers – associated with separating the companies entirely”.
The proposals come a week after MPs said that if BT does not ramp up investment in Openreach and address poor service, Ofcom should force it to split off the division.

BT – which now also owns mobile phone group EE – has pledged to spend £6 billion over the next three years and overhaul customer service to see off the threat of a forced split.

But a scathing report from the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee last week claimed BT has “significantly under-invested” in Openreach, which is responsible for rolling out super-fast broadband across the UK.

And the MPs accused BT of making strategic decisions that put the group’s interests ahead of customers and its Openreach business. The report found that, based on information from a panel of independent experts, BT’s under-investment could potentially run to hundreds of millions of pounds each year.

The report said BT was “exploiting the position of vertical integration to make strategic decisions that favour the group’s priorities and interests, at the expense of its access infrastructure business”.

It added that BT “appears to be deliberately investing in higher-risk, higher-return assets such as media properties, and not investing in profitable lower-risk infrastructure and services through Openreach”.

The report also claimed BT had “stifled local competition and thwarted other network providers’ planning” through its lack of transparency on Openreach costs.

Ofcom likewise came under fire in the report, with MPs saying it was “slow to introduce minimum service standards with financial penalties for Openreach, some nine years after its creation”.

Rival companies such as Sky, Vodafone and TalkTalk have long called for a split between BT and Openreach. They pay to use the network and have previously complained over poor service and urged the group to replace its ageing network of copper wire.

Ofcom chief executive Sharon White said there was a gap between what the regulator and BT are proposing and stressed she would use her powers to enforce the change if the company resists it.

A Department for Culture, Media and Sport spokesman said: “Nine out of 10 homes and businesses now have access to superfast broadband, but our goal is to make sure the UK builds the right infrastructure to maintain our position as a world-leading digital nation.

“We are clear that a more independent Openreach is needed to benefit consumers and the UK’s digital infrastructure. We are concerned that BT’s proposals do not go far enough and think it is right that full structural separation remains an option.

“Swift and clear action is needed to give certainty to consumers, industry and investors in the UK’s broadband infrastructure, and which delivers rapid improvements in the level of investment and service.”

BT said it believed the “unprecedented” changes provide “the basis for a fair, proportionate and sustainable regulatory settlement” and would meet the recommendations of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

Its chief executive Gavin Patterson said: “We have listened to Ofcom and industry and are introducing significant changes to meet their concerns. These changes will make Openreach more independent and transparent than it is today, something both Ofcom and industry have requested.

“Openreach is committed to delivering better service, broader coverage and faster speeds and these changes will enable it to do just that. Our proposals can form the basis for a fair and sustainable regulatory settlement and we believe they can also enable Ofcom to bring its review to a speedier conclusion.

“Proportionality has to underpin any regulatory solution and we believe our proposals are a bold and appropriate response to the concerns outlined by Ofcom and others. We have considered the more extreme solutions proposed by others but they would be overly complex, disproportionately costly and time consuming to implement. They would also undermine Openreach’s ability to invest and create years of uncertainty.”

TalkTalk chief executive Dido Harding said the move was “a step in the right direction” but warned that it could favour BT by allowing them to continue “gaming the system” of complex regulations – a claim denied by Mr Patterson.

Ms Harding told the Today programme: “It is a step in the right direction, the danger is though that sometimes when you take one step in the right direction, you actually create a regime that’s so complicated that it’s actually five steps in the wrong direction.
“And until everyone’s had a chance to scrutinise this in a lot of detail it’s not obvious.”

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