Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Just how stupid were the Conservative Government to privatise British Telecom?

In 1984 I left school with a few A levels and started looking for a job rather than go to University. At the same time Margaret Thatcher's Government were in the process of Privatising the Nationalised Industries and the floated British Telecom.  We were told that the new company would be more efficient and the Economy would benefit from a better run business.  "We want BT to have the complete freedom that a private company has.  Only in this way can the needs of the country and of BT be met.  The Bill creates freedom from Treasury and ministerial control.  It also gives freedom to BT to grow, to operate overseas, and to make acquisitions... the market is growing so quickly that BT can expand only by becoming a free, independent company" (Kenneth Baker, Minister for Industry and Information Technology, 29 November 1982).

"If we were to continue with the old cosy relationship of a public utility with an exclusive privilege, having its accredited manufacturers continuously supplying equipment to the same specifications, this country would become a telecommunications backwater" (John Butcher, Under Secretary of State for Industry, 15 February 1983).

So lets wide the clock forward to 2012 and look at what the UK needs in terms of telecoms products and how BT are able to service those needs.  Today in Parliament the Prime Minister said the he wanted hi Secretary of State for Culture to build the High Speed Broadband the country needs to get the Economy growing.  I almost chocked on my coffee, just how was she going to incentivise a Private Company to invest in infrastructure at a rate where it was likely to lose money?  The Chairman and Chief Executive of BT can rightly say that regardless of what the Government wants they answer to the shareholders who want a return of their investment.

Back at the time of the first Internet bubble in the late 1990s Britain was a laggard when it came to Broadband services and speed.  The issue was that BT had not invested in new service because the regulator and the shareholders were acting as an anchor.  In other parts of Europe State Owned Monopolies had been able to get a march on the UK with the deployment of ADSL services.  In an effort to remedy this the Regulator decided that BT would have to give access to it's exchanges for rivals to install equipment and hopefully introduce competition that would force BT to launch faster services to maintain customers.  Rather than achieve what they hoped for the Regulator they found the BT went slower holding back the introduction of faster services and future Upgrades to High Speed Broadband have been even slower.

Over the past year I have watched the deployment of High Speed Fibre to my local exchange in West Hertfordshire.  The project was first expected to be completed in January 2012.  The Exchange did no go live until July 2012 a delay of six months. The service available to most households is not the Infinity product advertised on the television but rather a service a quarter of that speed.  The reason is that the suburban town that I live in has too much copper buried in the ground rather than running through ducts.  This is expensive to replace and only seems to be done by BTOpenreach if the cable has been stollen.  Thus the market does not seem to be working for the benefit of the consumer or the Economy because BT does not have a financial incentive to maintain the best possible network.

In the last financial year BT has generated some £2.5Bn in free cashflow, it has also paid a dividend to shareholders.  These funds could have been used it the Utility was still in State ownership to invest in the deployment of Highspeed Broadband across the whole of the UK. The Privatised BT has not become free and it has not increased the number of suppliers used to build and maintain it's Network rather it has decreased them as they seek to reduce costs.  The cost cutting measures has also seen less money spent on training and development of Engineers the almost total closure of it's R&D facilities and consumers suffering poor quality service. (NB Once I have an update on my current service complaint to the Chairman's Office at BT I will write another post on just how they are failing to deliver)

I look across at France Telecom, Deutsch Telecom and KPN and think that  Conservative Prime Ministers have very little understand of the strategic importance of world leading communications networks.  When I visit somewhere such as Korea and Japan and see what they have achieved with Super Fast Broadband delivered via a form of planned economy and I wish that my Parents had not returned from the Far East in 1976 and I worked there.

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