BT CEO Calls for Improved Planning Laws to Boost UK Broadband

The new CEO of BT Group (inc. EE, Plusnet, Openreach), Allison Kirkby, has told this week’s Deloitte and Enders Media & Telecoms 2024 Conference in London that any future UK government should look to boosting full fibre broadband and 5G mobile by making further changes to existing planning laws.

As it stands, EE’s latest 5G mobile network already covers 75% of the UK’s population (up from 72% in H1) and Openreach’s national gigabit-capable Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) broadband ISP network has reached 14 million premises. The latter is currently part of an investment (worth up to £15bn) that is expected to cover 25 million premises by December 2026 (80%+ of the UK) and then up to 30 million by 2030 (nearly universal coverage).

Suffice to say that the operator is making strong progress with its telecoms infrastructure and, over the past decade, the Government has already made a lot of changes to soften existing planning laws to help facilitate such work by network operators. Some examples include moving poles / street cabinets into more flexible Permitted Development (PD) rights and softening the rules on mobile mast upgrades etc.

However, with the 2024 General Election just around the corner, Allison Kirkby has signalled (The Guardian) that one way to support this ongoing work would be to improve “certainty” around regulatory and fiscal policy. Specifically, BT’s boss says the future government will “need to look at planning” (again).

Kirkby made this point at the same time as acknowledging something basic that anybody harbouring any familiarity with the sector has known for the best part of nearly two decades, which is that “Scandinavia is way ahead of the UK” and “part of that is very much driven by the regulatory environment, the planning environment and the general adoption of digital skills and digital services” (see the – 2023 EU Progress Report).

Admittedly, BT’s CEO does rather overlook the company’s own history of having spent many prior years being strongly opposed to investing in building FTTP at scale (something well documented by ISPreview), while instead preferring to focus on their ageing copper line infrastructure. This approach significantly contributed to today’s position, where the UK is playing catch-up with much of the EU. But on the flip side, it also helped to encourage plenty of alternative networks, which now threaten the incumbents.

Allison Kirkby, CEO of BT Group, said:

“It’s not necessarily market structure that stops the UK having the great networks that I saw in Sweden – a lot of it is restricted by planning. The Swedes, the Norwegians, the Finnish all expected their highways, their trains, to have great connectivity wherever you were, even when you were up in the northern part of the country. A lot of what is not working in the UK is the planning legislation.”

Sadly, the new CEO doesn’t elaborate on precisely what aspects of planning she would like to see changed or improved, which seems like a missed opportunity but does also limit any potential risk of fallout from such remarks during a General Election period.
For example, in recent months the news has been full of gripes about the deployment of new telecoms poles from multiple operators, which has grown to become somewhat of a political issue (here and here). Doing anything that might make such deployments even easier, right now, would thus risk being perceived as pushing too far in the wrong direction. BT’s CEO must this tread very carefully.

On the other hand, Openreach and rival operators are trying to find solutions to other problems, such as with the ongoing difficulties of deploying new fibre optic broadband lines into certain large residential buildings / MDUs (here). But that’s arguably more an issue of wayleave (access) agreements than planning, although it is an example of an area where there may still be room for improvement.

We have this morning asked both BT and Openreach if they might be able to elaborate on what sort of planning changes Allison had in mind and we’ll update if any specifics come our way.

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