BT’s Openreach pushes Labour for easier access to flats in fibre rollout

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BT has lobbied the Labour party for a change in legislation to help speed up the rollout of high-speed broadband in blocks of flats as companies step up their engagement with the opposition ahead of the next UK general election.

The telecoms group has held talks with Labour about allowing its networking division Openreach to replace its existing copper cables in multi-dwelling units (MDUs) with full fibre without seeking additional permission from the property’s landlord.

BT is investing £15bn in its rollout of full fibre as it races with alternative network providers, or altnets, to upgrade digital infrastructure across the country.

Clive Selley, chief executive of Openreach, told the Financial Times the process of obtaining new so-called wayleave agreements with landlords to install full fibre was “painful, it’s time-consuming and it’s expensive” and could “easily double the cost of providing fibre to a small block”.

He added that the company often could not get through to the owner or managing agent of a building and had had to bypass almost 1mn apartments on streets where it had laid full fibre.

Openreach said it had passed more than 13.5mn premises with full fibre, more than halfway to its initial target to reach 25mn by the end of 2026. Premises passed by altnets were estimated to be between 12mn and 13mn by the end of 2023, according to the Independent Networks Cooperative Association.

Selley added that residents of MDUs, which range from apartment blocks to converted Victorian buildings, were “in danger of becoming part of a new digital divide” by not having access to “ultrafast” and reliable broadband.

The company has asked for existing agreements with MDU landlords, which enable Openreach to maintain and repair copper cables, to be extended to automatically provide permission for upgrades to full fibre.

Selley said Labour was “engaging and listening” to its policy request and that the company had also previously lobbied the Conservative government asking for assistance on this.

However, two altnets have raised concerns with Labour about the impact on competition, according to people familiar with the matter.

James Fredrickson, chief corporate affairs officer at Vorboss, an altnet for London businesses, said Openreach was seeking a legislative change to “overcome a barrier that other fibre builders have navigated through hard work and a commitment to build good relationships with freeholders”. The company last month directly raised its concerns with Labour.

In response, Selley said that although Openreach had lobbied for access built on its own existing wayleaves, he was happy for any legislative change to provide equal right of access to competitors, some of which may not have their own wayleaves yet.

“I don’t need something that just favours Openreach. I’m very happy that the law is changed such that any fibre builder could go in and build in an MDU,” Selley said. He added that a legal change would enable Openreach to “speed up [our] programme, and our colleagues in other companies could do likewise”.

Meg Hillier, Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, said some of her constituents were “living in the dark ages” and unable to work from home because of their broadband. She said the wayleave system was “too expensive” but how to solve the issue was “another problem”. Both sides had been “lobbying hard”, she added.

A Department for Science, Innovation and Technology spokesperson said: “Measures providing network operators the ability to enter multi-dwelling units without permission from the landlord, as proposed by Openreach, would significantly and adversely impact on the rights of property owners and occupiers,” adding that the issue was considered during 2022 legislation.

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