BT's Secret Master Plan -- Delay Ofcom On Openreach Until The Future Is Mobile 5G

It has been long overdue, and it's a compromise that will ultimately see BT patting itself on the back for playing its hand to the best of its ability while waiting for 5G to replace fixed line services.

Ofcom insisting that BT legally separates from its infrastructure arm, Openreach, has been a long time coming. According to the regulator, this is a ruling it was forced to make after BT failed to come up with any measures itself that would answer the telecom industry's widely held concern that BT effectively owns the nation's broadband infrastructure. More to the point, that raises a huge conflict of interest when telco brands are supposed to be competing for customers who are activated -- and have their service maintained -- by BT's infrastructure arm.

There is criticism of BT this morning that it hasn't done more to alleviate fears -- but actually, stand back for a moment and you realise it has played what the football pundits on its channels would describe as a "blinder." The telco effectively gambled that Ofcom wouldn't force a spin out and third-party ownership of Openreach. The worst that could happen -- as has proven to be the case -- is that BT would be forced to turn a Chinese wall, through which BT is currently supposed to gain no favour from Openreach ownership, into a more formal legal separation. 

Now that this has been insisted upon, you do the math. BT has already bumbled around with the issue for a few years, and it is easy to see how it could do so again going back to Ofcom for clarification for another year or so. The legal work and all the stuff that needs doing to make this a reality could take at least another year or two. Does 2020 sound like a realistic time frame? Maybe slightly earlier, but you can see how this could easily be dragged out.

The year 2020 not only sounds like a round number -- it is also the year that most experts agree that we will begin to see 5G mobile services, if not maybe 2019, at a pinch. Make no mistake -- 5G is the big game changer. While 4G has moved the needle up on mobile broadband speeds, 5G is supposed to take us to the heights we would usually expect of fibre-to-the-cabinet. In my household, that varies from around 40 Mbps to 60 Mbps. If this were possible over the mobile airwaves, why would i want fixed line broadband?

Interestingly, and it could be unrelated, but BT sent me a piece of direct mail the other day that grabbed my attention. It is now offering discounts on multiple SIMs that will operate as family accounts. Under this idea everyone in the family could have a BT SIM controlled and paid for by the account holder -- no points for guessing that would be me! This raises a very interesting prospect of mobile becoming like the landline in that the household becomes responsible for the connection and account, only that instead of a phone plugged in at the hall, we'll each have a mobile phone with generous talk, text and data allowances backed up by speeds akin to residential fibre.

When this becomes a reality, there really will be no need for landlines and broadband will be liberated from the yoke of cabling. It will be mobile. BT will have no more advantage to be gained from owning Openreach, and so it will be no skin off its nose that it has no day-to-day control over the operation.

BT, you see, has played a complete blinder here. It has strung this conversation out long enough until the worst that can happen is that Openreach is moved beyond arm's-length control but it still owns it. In the meantime, the puck will have moved. Lines and cables will not be the big game in town -- everything will be mobile. The entire game will be 5G. Openreach will become a footnote in history.

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