Openreach Seek Changes to Make Building FTTP Broadband into Flats Easier

Network access provider Openreach (BT) are reportedly lobbying MPs, both UK government ministers and members of the Labour opposition, to introduce further legislative changes that could make it even easier for them to extend their 1.8Gbps speed Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) broadband ISP network into multi-dwelling units (MDUs) by upgrading existing copper lines.

The government has already done a fair bit of work to help make it both quicker and cheaper for gigabit broadband networks to access big residential buildings (e.g. apartment blocks / flats), such as via the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Act 2021 (TILPA), which tackled situations where so-called “rogue landlords” failed to respond (here and here), and tenants demand faster connections.

NOTE: Openreach’s full fibre currently covers 13.5 million UK premises (build rate of c.73,000 per week) and they aim to reach 25m by Dec 2026 (here) – 6.2m of those will be in rural or semi-rural areas. After that, there’s an aspiration to reach up to 30m by 2030.

The TILPA changes essentially tackled this by introducing a significantly cheaper and faster route for dispute resolution via a new court process, but this only applies after a landlord has repeatedly failed to respond to requests for access. According to the FT (paywall), Openreach appears to want to sidestep this process by securing a change that would allow them default access to conduct an upgrade, such as when they already have existing copper line infrastructure inside the building (i.e. extending existing maintenance/repair agreements to include full fibre).

The UK is home to approximately 480,000 blocks of flats or apartment buildings (MDUs). But Openreach’s CEO, Clive Selley, said the process of obtaining new wayleaves (legal land/property access agreements) from landlords to install full fibre was still “painful … time-consuming and it’s expensive” and could “easily double the cost of providing fibre to a small block”.

Despite TILPA, the operator still claims to be finding it difficult to contact the owner or managing agent of a building and has had to bypass almost 1 million apartments on streets where it had already laid full fibre. However, we should point out that this problem affects all network operators, not only Openreach.

Similarly, it’s plausible that at least some of the MDUs being referenced by Openreach may already have access to gigabit-capable broadband via a different operator, such as Virgin Media or Hyperoptic, although the FT didn’t think to query that. One other thing to be aware of here is that, if Openreach were to be granted such an extension of access, then they would gain a competitive advantage that rivals networks may not be able to harness.

According to Clive Selley, Labour was “engaging and listening” to its policy request, although it remains to be seen whether that is merely paying lip service to the issue. For its part, the Conservative government has pointed out that landlords have rights too.

A Government (DSIT) 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.”

Suffice to say that there are complex issues to consider here, although Openreach have made clear that they’d be just as happy for a change to be introduced that makes it similarly easy for rival networks to access MDUs. The issue was considered while TILPA was being created, but was rejected. In any case, even if such changes were tabled for debate tomorrow, it would still be at least 1-2 years before they could be introduced. In other words, the issue of MDUs looks set to run for a few more years yet, assuming further changes do eventually get made.

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