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After yet another set of lacklustre earnings and with over 10,000 staff facing the axe, embattled BT CEO Gavin Patterson needed a quick win. Today’s launch of new consumer offerings from both BT and EE, along with a plan to converge its broadband and 4G networks seem, at face value, to give him that.
At an event in London today BT bet big on its Consumer unit – which is made up of its broadband retail business, EE, and ‘cheap-n-cheerful’ ISP Plusnet. It made over 20 announcements, of which a tie-up with Amazon Prime Video, more content for BT Sport, a managed smart home ecosystem, and the repatriation of its dreaded outsourced call centres to UK shores probably have the most kerb appeal for consumer service buyers.
I think a big part of this strategy is to convince consumers that BT is a natural home for them. Here, BT has a clear advantage as the incumbent (and up until the ’80s the state-run monopoly), and can draw on this to demonstrate that it’s a safe bet for the average user, being the only provider with the size, scale and money to bring together its converged network and customer services vision and wrap it together with lots of nice little perks, such as free 4G Wi-Fi routers if your broadband goes down, or access to Amazon exclusives such as The Grand Tour. No argument there.
But what struck me at today’s press conference was that BT made scant mention of full-fibre, or Openreach’s pivot towards the so-called gold standard of broadband. But then, I wondered, why would it need to? The converged network offering offers a nice speed boost almost right out of the gate in the form of a new router that bonds together a fixed and mobile connection, and to be scrupulously fair, the content streaming experience on a superfast connection is generally as good as on an ultrafast one.
Everything announced today was predicated on making the online experience easier for consumers, not on expanding access to full-fibre. Clever BT has decided that this sort of thing is what consumers want, and in many ways it’s got that right. If the tone of coverage in the mainstream press is anything to go by, this strategy will work out well for it and I expect its customer acquisitions will duly spike a little in the next few months.
Ask yourself this, how can rapidly expanding full-fibre suppliers such as CityFibre compete with that? Sure, you can pay an altnet for an ultrafast connection and it’ll be great, no question, but after that you’re on your own. And let’s be frank here, nobody else building pure full-fibre networks in this country really has a hope of being able to afford Premier League football rights, or to tie-up with content producers like Amazon and Netflix.
Yes, in terms of competition, this is great for BT. But I can’t help but think that to some extent, BT is tinkering with easy fixes and consumer-pleasing add-ons when it ought to be pulling out all the stops on full-fibre. I think it’s in danger of falling back into bad habits and leading on broadband that is, well, just good enough, and I don’t want to see that.
As we’ve been saying here for years, good enough broadband isn’t good enough for Britain’s digital future, and we have a responsibility not to let BT take the easy way out and make good enough out to be desirable. Today’s announcements are good news, but they also show how important it is to keep holding BT’s feet to the fire, and to keep talking about full-fibre as a priority.