Scandinavia ‘way ahead’ of UK in telecoms infrastructure, says BT boss

The Nordic countries are “way ahead” of the UK in telecoms infrastructure and the government should look again at planning laws to help improve poor connectivity, the boss of BT has said.

Allison Kirkby, the chief executive of BT, told the Deloitte and Enders media and telecoms conference in London: “What I would say is Scandinavia is way ahead of the UK. Part of that is very much driven by the regulatory environment, the planning environment and the general adoption of digital skills and digital services.”

About 80% of homes in Sweden are connected by entirely fibre-optic lines, she said, which are many times faster than older copper wires.

She joined BT earlier this year from her former role as the chief executive of the Swedish telecoms company Telia, and has spent the past decade working in Scandinavia.

She faces a tough turnaround at BT, which is fighting competition from scores of alternative network providers, or “alt nets”, as it rolls out next-generation 5G mobile and full-fibre broadband across the UK through its Openreach subsidiary.

BT has set itself a £15bn plan to roll out full-fibre broadband to 25m homes by 2026. It has reached more than 14m premises, with a further 6m where initial build is under way, and is on track to reach 25m by December 2026.

Kirkby was asked at the conference what she was looking for from the government in a general election year, and replied: “Regulatory and fiscal policy certainty.”

“We need to look at planning,” she said. “It’s not necessarily market structure that stops the UK having the great networks that I saw in Sweden – a lot of it is restricted by planning. The Swedes, the Norwegians, the Finnish all expected their highways, their trains, to have great connectivity wherever you were, even when you were up in the northern part of the country. A lot of what is not working in the UK is the planning legislation.”

Separately Robert Finnegan, the chief executive of mobile phone company Three UK, told the London conference that in his view, “customers would be short-changed” and see less infrastructure investment if the Competition and Markets Authority was to block the proposed merger between Three UK and Vodafone.

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Finnegan said: “Well if this merger does not get approved, then nothing changes and the UK will still rank lowly amongst its peers … because people want quality infrastructure when they are investing … Customers will be short-changed … the two smaller players won’t be able to afford to roll out the network and the two big players won’t have the incentive to do so.”

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