Openreach wants UK politicians to help it get full fibre into apartment blocks without necessarily obtaining permission from the landlord, it emerged this week.

Mary Lennighan

April 3, 2024

3 Min Read

BT's networks arm has been lobbying the opposition Labour party for legislative changes that would help it bypass the need for additional permits from building owners in order to replace copper cables with fibre, the Financial Times reported earlier this week.

The paper spoke to Openreach chief executive Clive Selley, who described the process of reaching new wayleave agreements with landlords to put fibre into their buildings as "painful...time-consuming and expensive." New wayleaves can easily double the cost of installing fibre in a small apartment block, he said.

A large part of the problem seems to be in contacting property owners or managing agents in the first place. Selley said often his company cannot get hold of the relevant people. As a result, it has ended up missing out on installing fibre in almost 1 million apartments on streets where it has laid full fibre.

That's a fair percentage of its fibre footprint. Openreach's full fibre network reached 13 million premises as of end-2023, according to BT's latest quarterly results announcement. The firm is building out fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) to 73,000 premises per week, adding 950,000 homes passed in the final three months of last year. It noted in its Q3 announcement that it has begun building to a further 6 million premises.

Those 1 million missed premises in apartments, which range from purpose-built blocks to converted Victorian houses, are clearly an issue, and it's unsurprising Openreach would want to address it. Selley is – naturally – pushing the socio-economic angle, talking about the threat of a new digital divide if apartment dwellers are unable to access high-speed fibre broadband. But there's no hiding the fact that there's a business concern here for BT too, if it is having to bypass such a large potential customer base.

As such, Openreach is seeking for an extension of existing arrangements with the landlords of multi-dwelling units (MDUs) that enable it to enter a building to maintain and repair copper cables without express permission. It wants these rules to automatically cover upgrades to full fibre.

Selley told the FT that the Labour party is engaging with Openreach on the matter, but didn't provide any more information than that. He also said the company has asked the Conservative government for help with the matter too.

The implication there is that Openreach is getting somewhere with its request. But a comment from the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) secured by the paper suggests otherwise.

"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," it quotes a DSIT spokesperson as saying. The spokesperson added that the issue had already been considered under previous legislation.

The government is clearly not particularly amenable to changing the rules at this point, which probably explains why Openreach is now targeting Labour, with a general election due later this year.

The government is not the only one apparently baulking at Openreach's proposals.

"We see high levels of poor quality and unsafe full fibre installations in MDUs. Removing landlords' ability to control access increases the risk for residents," said Kevin Monaghan, Chief Commercial Officer of Complete Technology Group, a digital infrastructure advisory service for landlords in the UK.

"There is a difference between landlords ignoring requests for access (which the law already deals with) and landlords insisting on access under reasonable conditions," Monaghan said.

That sounds perfectly reasonable. Although doubtless Openreach would disagree.

About the Author(s)

Mary Lennighan

Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.

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