This blog is about Openreach, who claim to be helping Britain out with faster broadband.
The reality can be very different. What follows is a case study in exploitation of the current pandemic which shows an organization paying no attention to the vulnerability of the people it claims to be helping. We are just marketing fodder in its ruthless quest to meet its targets. Working with Government it may be, but working for the people it isn’t.
This story begins in early January when I and my partner were self-isolating (I had Covid-19). We live in a block of flats in the heart of the City of London, about 200 yards from the global HQ of Openreach (BT wholesale) in Knightrider St. But since we moved in , in 2015, we have had the internet connection from hell. Trying to run multiple devices on our connection is often impossible.
It has meant that my partner has to go to her office to work – putting herself and others at risk so she can carry out a keyworker role that could – with fibre broadband – be carried out from home.
So imagine our delight when we received a letter – delivered to our flat by the Royal Mail- from OpenWork telling us that were we to follow a web-process, we would get our long-awaited upgrade to a fibre broadband connection.
This was what we’d waited 6 years for and all this could be done without us having to break our quarantine! This was a Government backed project and it was being offered us not by some rinky-dink chancers but by Openreach, a company owned by BT, the company who’s broadband service we subscribed to who had been telling us month after month that help with fibre was on its way!
We contacted our managing agent by phone, email and we completed the forms Openreach requested of us. We were surprised we needed to do this as our managing agents had been trying to help us for many years but had been told by Openreach that though we were in the heart of one of the most connected places in the planet, our block was not a priority.
And then the kick in the teeth.
It turned out that this letter was not the promise of faster broadband. It was simply a way to get leaseholders to put pressure on bad landlords and it turned out Openreach had no intention of getting fibre into our building until after lockdown ended (and then only when it became their “priority”
On hearing this news – conveyed to us by the managing agent who was able to speak to Openreach, I decided to speak to Opernreach myself.
No such luck.
Openreach’s website is a mess of pro formas which never gives up so much as an email , let alone a dedicated helpline. What support there is simply takes you through the usual series of automated options, none of which is manned, leading you back to the pro-formas on their site. It is Kafka-esque,
To break the frustration, I sent an inmail on Linked-in to Openreach’s CEO. This is the only way I know to get any kind of response to a tech firm that uses tech to hide from its clients and it got a result. I got a call from Openreach’s Infrastructure Solutions Executive Level Complaints Team confirming what my managing agent had been told , but worse, that there was no promise from Openreach that even when lockdown was over, we would get connected.
I asked what the point of the letter was and was given this explanation. Openreach have a plan to roll out fibre to blocks like mine but need the permission of landlords. The statement “we’re now in your area” means nothing, whether you get fibre depends on “more people in your block registering an interest“. There is only one way to interpret what is going on; Openreach are exploiting the desperation of residents locked down in urban flats to capture their details for marketing purposes.
The statement “we just need the permission of your landlord or managing agent to access the building and do the work” is a lie. Openreach is building up a pipeline of work for itself once the pandemic recedes (and with it the vital need for fibre), in the meantime they are extracting personal information from vulnerable flat-owners that Openreach has been under-serving for years. Openreach has no intention of doing any work in my building till it suits them and all the fuss and bother flat-dwellers are put to turns out to be of no immediate benefit to them. Indeed we find ourselves with no firmer promise of fibre than before this letter arrived.
This is utterly despicable behaviour. It is exploitative and the letter was sent when our area was under the most stress from Covid it ever had been. The letter arrived on January 8th.
The failure of Openreach to get fibre into a building in London EC4 is still unexplained. The sub-standard broadband we receive from Openreach’s former parent British Telecom is not discounted because it only half-works. BT takes no responsibility for the situation, saying it’s now Openreach’s problem and Openreach is now a separate organisation. Openreach’s appalling complaints procedure and refusal to apologize for any aspect of its behaviour mark it out for special criticism.
We were not the only people getting this letter, I assume that everyone in our building got one and everyone in the other blocks that Openwork has failed to connect. Openwork has now conceded that it has had permission from our managing agents to do this work though they can’t tell me when this was granted. I suspect that they have had it all along, that’s certainly what the managing agents say.
And what of Openreach’s claim that they can’t do the work till lockdown ends? I pressed the “executive level complaint handler” on this and asked what he considered a priority if not the connectivity of customers. It would seem that there are certain priorities much higher though the fleet of Openwork vans parked all around Knightrider street and the number of Openreach engineers sitting in them , suggests that there is plenty of capacity.
The public doors of the Faraday building are locked but I see a regular stream of workers entering the side doors every week day. The Openreach engineers I have spoken to about connection weren’t aware of any reason why our flat couldn’t be accessed, surveyed or connected. Indeed for them , January was business as usual. Just as the pandemic is a call to action for flat dwellers, it’s a reason for inaction for Openreach’s management. This just isn’t right.
What does this say about corporate governance?
The investor’s view
Although Openreach is a separate company from BT, it is still a division of BT and the most profitable division. In June 2018 BT offloaded 31,000 staff to this separate identity but the division was valued in May 2018 at about £20bn. That is double BT’s market capitalisation. The value of Openreach is underpinned by its near monopoly on connecting Britain to “fast fibre”, the roll-out of which is part of BT’s £12bn strategy to achieve 100% coverage by the end of the decade.
BT’s ever diminishing share price is almost as dependent on Openreach as we are. But BT takes no responsibility for the behaviour of Openreach. As BT’s head office is almost as close as Openreach’s , I also paid them a visit to see if I could speak with them but they simply referred me to the same dysfunctional complaints procedure at Openreach.
BT – so long as it remains publicly quoted, will form part of all our pension investments and its behavior is therefore all our business. The failures at Openreach are – for investors – failures of BT. Openreach mailing people made vulnerable by the pandemic, scaring them , over-promising and failing to give any support for help or complaint is a disgrace on Openreach and BT. From a corporate governance perspective, the behaviour of Openreach is simply not good enough.
But I guess the market knows this .
If you’ve got no fibre connection and get a “frightener” from Openreach as we did, there is something you can do. You can phone this number
0207 105 9580
which gets you through to the Executive Level Complaints team.
I had been assured that Openreach had received the permission to conduct their work by our managing agent. I had been told the letter I received was unfortunately timed. But it appears that further letters are being sent to my neighbors , with two reported yesterday.
Openreach are claiming this is a campaign to get action from landlords, if so it is indiscriminate and uncontrolled. Openreach should stop sending these letter immediately.