Following the broadband money

Gulliver in Lilliput: BT and its rural broadband competitors

with 9 comments

The stats helpers have produced an annual report for BrokenTelephone. It shows that it was viewed about 41,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 15 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

So, BrokenTelephone is small but perfectly formed, judging from the people who subscribe and comment regularly, to whom BrokenTelephone owes whatever relevance it has. Thank you all for reading, your comments, your suggestions and your support.

I would like to single out Somerset, the nom de plume of retired BT engineer Peter Barrington. He is by far (219 times) the most frequent commenter, more than three times the next most frequent correspondent. He has irritated many BrokenTelephone readers but I have resisted calls to ban him, and I would like to explain why.

Primarily I believe Somerset has a right to express his views. That they are so one-sided tells you that he is not impartial. He doesn’t have to be. As he operates in social media spaces, he is less constrained than BT’s official spokesmen. For all I know, he believes this is the best way of protecting his BT pension.

BrokenTelephone is not the only online forum to attract Somerset’s contributions (is there only one Somerset?), nor indeed does BT’s propaganda depend solely on Somerset. Other BT officials have also taken advantage of the quasi-anonymity afforded by social media conventions. Bill Murphy, who is in charge of BT’s next generation roll-out, has found plenty of time to push the BT line on Twitter under the Bill Broadband handle from the nominally impartial @WatchingtheFlow position.

New_Londoner is another frequent contributor on Twitter and other forums. This is believed to be the handle of Openreach CEO Liv Garfield, who is leaving BT for Severn Water after Gavin Patterson was picked as group CEO.  Another well-informed and highly paid contributor is BT’s chief network architect Neil McCrae, who at least writes under his own name, and about more than next generation broadband.

Very often they have spotted inaccuracies in reports or questioned tenuous lines of argument. That is good, because it has led to greater rigour. It has also opened up new avenues of investigation, which have often shed more light on what are often complex issues.

That said, BT’s use of social media is designed to instill fear, uncertainty and doubt in alternative proposals for rural and indeed national broadband access.

There is without doubt an argument for doing things the way BT wants them done.

BT’s social media correspondents have chosen neither to make it nor to win it on its merits. Instead they have tried, in disguise, to undermine the credibility those who propose alternatives or question BT’s plans.

That suggests that their argument may be threadbare at best. BT’s refusal to reveal its planning assumptions on rural roll-outs suggests that it indeed has something to hide, and that its “competitive intelligence” argument is a fig leaf.

This would be less important if there was a better balance in the sector. Instead we have Gulliver in Lilliput, thanks to Openreach’s near monopoly over last mile access outside towns, and the common insistence that a broadband account requires a parallel phone service.

There are new faces at BT and at Virgin Media, and Vodafone is, or soon will be, flush with cash. Will this lead to fresh thinking? The hope for 2014 is that BT’s competitors – mainly Virgin Media, Sky, TalkTalk and Vodafone – can, possibly together, create a platform that offers real national competition to BT at local access level.

Despite the dangers of duopoly, that is the surest way to extract better performance from BT.

Everything of the best for 2014.


Written by Br0kenTeleph0n3

2013/12/31 at 11:44

9 Responses

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  1. Thanks very much for the blog.

    I’d extend the comments to the ThinkBroadband website, designed to carefully steer people towards a solution based on the BT platform. It’s not so much pro-BT, but the sheet hatred towards any alternative networks means that objectivity is lost in reporting. “Those damn competitors, taking away customers which are rightfully BTs”. Virgin Media is the spawn of Satan. How dare this be allowed to exist!

    Which is why if you look at articles covering the same news on and you can often see clear bias in the reporting of the latter in terms of what is covered and what is not, and the angle from which the articles on the latter are written.

    Hence comments like “take off your vertical monopoly blinders” and “this site reads more like ThinkBT” and others from people in said articles. No, I didn’t post them. That website is to BT as the Telegraph is to the Conservative party.

    You can spot a retired BT engineer (I’d already clocked “Somerset” a long time ago) relying on BT for a pension (by the way, aren’t we all in the hock for BT’s pensions thanks to the Crown guarantee?) a mile off. “But how would you fund a broadband network?” which basically means “the government won’t give us the money we want; we have pensions to pay, you know.” The idea that the commercial sector could be involved and that there could be private investment were the framework right simply doesn’t occur. The ability to have that mind-set is lost, a bit like, I’d argue, those who work for the BBC.

    But all of this has only been allowed because in the haste for a quick buck by the then government of the day who thought that “regulated utilities” could actually work. That it is possible to have a hybrid private-public model and gain the advantages of commerciality with the control of the State. It is not. It never was. BT cannot flourish on its own merits (or otherwise) in part thanks to regulation. Which only exists because of market failure. Which was inevitable when BT was privatised along with the “last mile”. Virgin won’t roll out much further because the State will then get its grubby hands on them in the form of “regulation”. They’re not that stupid.

    If this aspect had been at the forefront of thinking when BDUK was introduced, we’d perhaps be on our way to genuine competition and choice for the customer. Instead, the result of that has been to further entrench a near-monopoly (I say near because of 3G and 4G, we haven’t had a landline for 6 years despite being in a rural area, the BT network can provide no useful offerings) and to make broadband essentially a non-commercial, State affair. People with money to invest in broadband in this country should be very afraid and put their wallets back in their pockets.

    Privatise the profits, socialise the costs or the losses creating “too big to fail” companies (think banks, too). There will eventually come a day when the State bites back and renationalises all utilities – that day being when the State sees less and less of their subjects money for itself to buy votes with. I believe this to be inevitable. The State was and remains at the heart of the issue picking the “winners and losers”, BT simply takes advantage of the gift-horse.


    2013/12/31 at 12:29

  2. I’d like to publicly thank Ian for the huge effort he has put in both here and elsewhere in striving to get to the truth of it all.

    mike phillips

    2013/12/31 at 16:29

    • That’s very kind of you Mike – thank you – it’s my blushes that are lighting the night sky – not the fireworks 😉


      2013/12/31 at 17:33

  3. I too enthusiastically second Mark’s note.

    One has to compliment BT’s marketing efforts particularly when they are broadcast by gullible Local Authority Public Servants such as in this case:-

    The costly maintenance nightmare of the types of cobbled solutions being suggested is difficult enough, but can any business accountant contemplate how such engineering can possibly map into the real world terrain e.g. of the B4RN area ?

    Merrow Drover

    2014/01/03 at 09:32

    • Thank you for that, as well as the link, which on page 5 contains this interesting snippet from BT’s Bill Murphy: “The most rural of our first Leyland cabinets already has 13 live user connections on it (representing around 12% of total premises served by the cabinet)” That suggests that BT underestimated the uptake rate in rural areas, as B4RN’s Chris Conder and Lindsey Annison repeatedly said it had. As a result the cost estimates for the BDUK roll-outs are way too high because they are amortised over a much lower installed base than will be the case. Local councils should watch very carefully for signs that BT is gold-plating its roll-out to prevent them clawing back taxpayers’ money. Scrutiny of BT’s BDUK-related invoices is now essential.


      2014/01/03 at 09:57

  4. Thanks for your efforts. Marks comments and efforts are also insightful. I have also enjoyed Somersets, he has not shied away from itemising costs/works where he can.

    Where from here? What is the future of regulation ? BT Group have made a very good case in 2013 for more than functional separation. The abuse of their discretion to allocate ‘costs’ , fixation on confidentiality agreements, the lack of any meaningful effort by ofcom to define an ‘efficient operator’, while announcing they are no longer attempting to reconcile BT management accounting data to those reported in the regulated accounts, and some very outdated market definitions suggests some surgery is needed.

    The acceptance of economic modelling as a substitute for proper reconcilable management accounts in an era where IP networking capital costs are a fraction of legacy TDM capital costs is the one area a regulator could bring some much needed change and scrutiny.

    NGA for all

    2014/01/03 at 13:00

    • Many thanks Mike. Your contributions to this blog and the greater enlightenment of the whole BDUK debate should not be underestimated. I believe it is your work on BT’s NGA costs that prompted the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee to investigate the value for money taxpayers will get from the 1.4bn the government is giving BT. Regarding BT’s costs, it is clear from Bill Murphy’s July presentation on the Lancashire rollout ( that in setting a 12% uptake figure. He acknowledged that “The most rural of our first Leyland cabinets already has 13 live user connections on it (representing around 12% of total premises served by the cabinet)”. BT was told by countless people that take-up in rural areas would be higher, not least because BT has a virtual monopoly on service provision there. By low-balling the take-up estimate, BT inflated the projected cost because it amortised the investment over an unrealistically low number of subscribers and probably a longer time. Local councils that spend BDUK money would do well to watch for BT gold-plating its NGA roll-outs to avoid having councils claw back excess profits. Attention should now swing to scrutinising and checking BT’s invoices against its suppliers’ invoices and against the costs of other commercial FTTC and FTTH roll-outs.


      2014/01/03 at 13:47

  5. Well done all! Its here in writing for our history books. It will be 2030 before government realise they have been taken for a ride. All we can do in the mean time is keep hammering home the truth in the hope that some of the brighter politicians understand and do something. That’s if the civil servants get an influx of brains too… maybe if they didn’t just promote eejits to get them out of the way we could get somewhere? There are plenty of bright young civil servants if the old boys would just listen to them.


    2014/01/04 at 07:59

  6. […] has been a prolific commentator on BrokenTelephone, as noted here. His comments have been partial, and biased towards fulfilling BT’s agenda with respect to […]

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