The boss of takeover target TalkTalk has launched a blistering attack on rival BT over the rollout of superfast broadband.
Tristia Harrison told The Mail on Sunday that BT was putting at risk Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plans to ‘level up’ the UK with ultrafast internet for every home by 2025.
BT’s infrastructure arm Openreach is spending £12billion to upgrade the broadband network to full fibre lines from the copper laid more than a century ago.
Fast forward: BT’s infrastructure arm Openreach is spending £12billion to upgrade the broadband network to full fibre lines
But Harrison claimed Openreach wants to pass a large portion of this cost to telecoms rivals which use its cables – and said this would add up to £20 a month to the bills of TalkTalk customers.
She said this would price out those in less affluent areas where Johnson wants to improve living standards.
Harrison said: ‘If the pricing is really for the privileged and at a premium then lots of people in the areas that the Government wants to level up will be left behind.
‘We want Openreach to recognise that there needs to be sensible pricing for full fibre and that will stimulate demand. ‘It will stimulate migration [of customers to faster broadband]. It will underpin their business case.’
Johnson last year launched a plan to upgrade the broadband network in rural areas and connect every household to ultrafast internet.
Harrison said hitting the 2025 target already appeared to be ‘highly unlikely’.
‘If we’re not very careful it will be a thing that gets absolutely missed so there is a degree of urgency now,’ she said.
‘We believe strongly that fast connectivity at an affordable price is a key enabler to levelling up because it brings huge democracy in terms of enterprise, school learning and even more so post-pandemic where everyone will still want to work from home.’
A surge in video streaming, gaming and home working since Covid has put a strain on the broadband network.
The National Audit Office this week said just 14 per cent of households can currently connect to full fibre lines – one of the lowest rates in Europe.
Separately, regulator Ofcom began a probe into BT for potentially vastly overcharging customers to connect in remote areas.
BT is a former monopoly which was privatised in 1984. Openreach was created in 2006 to manage the phone and broadband network. Rival telecoms firms pay Openreach to use its infrastructure.
Budget operator TalkTalk campaigned for Openreach to be split off from BT before the pair were ordered to legally separate in 2016. However, BT still owns Openreach and runs it separately with its own board.
Ahead of a review by Ofcom into the wholesale broadband market next year, Harrison warned that TalkTalk may renew its calls for a full split.
She said: ‘If it’s a halfway house with absolutely no concrete evidence of independence, then BT may as well be a monopoly again. At the moment it’s neither one thing nor another.’
Harrison declined to comment on takeover discussions for TalkTalk. Last week, the hedge fund Toscafund – one of TalkTalk’s major stakeholders – approached cofounder and executive chairman Sir Charles Dunstone with a 97p-ashare offer.
The shares have been hit since Tosca – which is run by Martin Hughes, known as The Rottweiler – made a £1.35 per share offer last year.
Industry sources suggest that no other bidders are currently in the frame.
BT has also faced takeover speculation after hiring Goldman Sachs bankers to help fend off potential approaches.
An Openreach spokesman said: ‘We’re working closely with customers to develop attractive propositions which work for us and them whilst safeguarding that competition.’