BT: Not getting broadband is like deprivation

Steve Robertson

Exclusive Q&A: Openreach chief has sympathy for those with no broadband, but says BT can't afford to solve problem itself

In the first part of our exclusive interview with BT Openreach CEO, Steve Robertson, we discussed the race for Gigabit broadband.

In this second part, we're focusing on the technologies being rolled out today: fibre, ADSL, and the deplorably slow speeds still experienced by many in rural areas, which Robertson himself describes as "deprivation" for those with families.

Read on for his thoughts on the demise of ADSL, the digital divide and whether BT could do better when broadband connections go wrong.

Q. In exchanges that have been fitted with fibre, will ADSL be phased out? Is there any need it for it in fibre exchanges?

I’ve got members of my own family who live in Kent with kids in the household, and not getting broadband feels like deprivation

A. Like all legacy technologies, eventually ADSL will be bypassed by faster, better stuff. However, and it’s quite a big however, I still get business cards from people with fax numbers on them. The pace of which new technology completely replaces legacy... there can be a long tail. There’s still quite a lot of people doing dial-up internet. Why would anybody be doing that on the internet today? Well, actually there are still people who do it.

So I think technologies like ADSL, that have served us really well, that are still serving us very well, and that still have some legs in them, are going to be with us for some time.

Q. Given that BT Retail has priced fibre so closely to ADSL, do you think there will be a swift migration to fibre?

A. I think almost by definition it’s going to take a bit of time. First of all, we have to go through the process of the geographical deployment of this stuff, and that in itself takes time.

There’s still a big public debate around how to fund places where it doesn’t look like it’s economic to go. How do we make sure there isn’t a future digital divide? There is policy for the existing Government, but there’s a General Election coming up, so how that whole situation is going to evolve is going to take time.

[But] I personally think it [fibre] is a fantastic product. It’s as dangerous to underestimate the attraction of this as it is to overestimate it. We may find that in places where it’s available, it could really take off.

The last thing I’d like to say about that is, once upon a time, we would look at the potential market for this stuff and our upper limit was always PC ownership. Those 70% who owned a PC were the absolute most you could ever hope to sell a broadband service to. I think that’s changing now.

As broadband capability is going to get embedded in flat screens, as IP television becomes an important application, that old 70% ceiling is going to get breached. I think it’s already getting breached. High-speed broadband and the applications it can support is going to be attractive to that market.

Q. Why is BT spending £1.5bn on a fibre rollout when there are still areas that still have very poor ADSL coverage? Is it fair on people still struggling on lines slower than 1Mbit/sec?

A. I’ve got a huge amount of sympathy for people… if you’re only getting one meg. Once upon a time the idea of getting a meg down a copper line would have been absolutely ridiculous and amazing experience, but times move on.

I’ve got even more sympathy for people who don’t get broadband at all. I’ve got members of my own family who live in Kent with kids in the household, and not getting broadband feels like deprivation. So I’ve got a lot of sympathy for people in that situation.

However, If we feel that, as a society, we make a decision and say that it’s a basic human right to have access to broadband, then the solution to that is we need to have public funding to support it. We cannot afford to just spend £5bn.

We do have the capability, and we’ve got a product in trial just now, where we can bring 1Mbit/sec or 2Mbits/sec broadband service to people who are at the end of a very, very long line. What we need to do now is to make sure we have a commercial model that makes it as easy as possible for service providers to sell it, and we’re making some progress on that.

The Government says it wants to fund the availability of up to 2Mbits/sec to everybody in the UK. What we need to do is work with them to make sure it happens as quickly as possible.

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