Posted: 5 March 2020

Speech: TalkTalk’s Northern Powerhouse Driving Full Fibre For All

Media & Telecoms 2020 & Beyond conference

FULL SPEECH TEXT: TALKTALK CEO TRISTIA HARRISON

TalkTalk’s Northern Powerhouse Driving Full Fibre For All

Good afternoon

It’s a pleasure to be here once again at what is an incredibly exciting time for the industry. And it’s great to be in London – but as a business that has just taken the leap and moved to the North West, Claire, I’m starting my lobbying early, and wouldn’t it be amazing if we could meet this time next year for the Enders Conference in Manchester!

It has been well over a year since TalkTalk took the decision to move our HQ and home to Salford, and I cannot recommend it enough. We’re currently the only major telco to have made this step – and we’d love for more to join us.

The sheer talent and vibrancy plus us all working together on one campus has enabled us to tap into a whole wave of creativity which makes me hugely excited about the year ahead.

TalkTalk is going from strength to strength, our simple mission to offer affordable fibre for everyone to over 4.2million consumers and 1000s of business and enterprises nationwide is working.

It’s been a busy year in Salford. This week we hosted an event for our Net Zero Heroes, where we celebrated colleagues making a real difference with their initiatives to reduce their own carbon footprint.

Throughout the year, we’ve hosted a whole series of events with speakers including Colin Jackson, Gary Neville, Fearne Cotton as well as our very own Charles Dunstone!

I’m also thrilled that following our recent £200m sale of FibreNation to CityFibre Holdings, we are creating a Northern Centre of Excellence, which will really drive the rollout of full fibre and help to deliver the next generation of digital infrastructure throughout the North of England, with the potential to reach over three million homes and businesses, coupled with CityFibre’s own plans to reach five million homes.

Plus of course the excellent momentum and investment from BT Openreach, I was just with Clive Selley this morning discussing exactly that.

As we’ve heard so often from Government - both here on this stage today and in recent months - ‘levelling up’ is critical to make sure that nobody is left behind, and that the whole country can flourish.

And that levelling up has to also start with us as businesses. I’m proud that we’ve made our move and I see this commitment as being at the heart of what TalkTalk stands for.

Fair, accessible connectivity should be a reality for everyone in the country no matter where they are. I frankly think it’s a scandal that in 2020 we’re still so far from that being the case.

While Britain leads the way in digital innovation in so many ways, we are so far behind with just 10% of the country having full fibre access. While other European countries already have FTTP coverage of 70-80%.

And it’s something that everyone in this room should be determined to fix. Because what links all of us here today is how we entertain, amaze and delight customers by letting them share moments - we are content producers, broadcasters, social media networks and much more.

But without the means to get this content or services to people, we have nothing.

And demand for that access continues to soar.

  • We’ve seen a 30-40% growth in network traffic over the last year, mainly driven by Amazon EPL, Gaming and Video.
  • The iphone remains the most popular device at 20% and indeed in the average home there are now 12-15 connected devices and that is only growing
  • Over the top video services account for over 60% of network traffic, driven by YouTube, Prime Video, Netflix and other streaming services.
  • The popularity of gaming platforms such as Fortnite and Call of Duty has generated new network peaks of nearly 6 tbs.
  • It’s a similar story in B2B with the drive to cloud based services and voice over IP.

Government’s role

So there is a lot to be optimistic about. It’s particularly encouraging to see the Government’s ambition, as we heard this morning from the Culture Secretary on this stage, and I spoke earlier to the Digital Minister about delivering for Britain on this.

That enthusiasm was evident too when I met with the Prime Minister and other industry leaders last month.

But it requires all of us to step up – and not only to deliver the infrastructure – but to keep the interests of consumers at the heart of all we do.

We propose a three-point plan to deliver by 2025. That means:

  • Firstly, keeping consumers at the heart of the conversation – as we have found from our experience in places like York, consumers want full fibre but price is a major determinant for that choice, along with reliability and speed. There, we have moved every single one of our customers off copper to fibre – and we are the first provider to do this. Customer satisfaction in York is at an incredible 96%.   
  • Secondly, incentivising investment – as shown by the FibreNation deal – these networks are valuable and can really deliver. Likewise, Openreach has committed to reach four million premises by March 2021.
  • Lastly, removing the barriers that existchanging the law to make it easier to get permissions to build, simpler to connect blocks of flats and will streamline the rules around closing roads and digging.

And let’s also be clear about the environmental benefits of full fibre. Not only is it faster and more reliable, it is cleaner and greener than copper could ever be, given it requires no electrical charge.

According to TalkTalk analysis, the network would reduce its emissions significantly if the switch from copper to fibre were made. We plan to share some of the work we are doing at a later date.

So, if we didn’t already have incentive enough, that should surely focus all of our minds on delivering by 2025 - if not before!

Separately, I’m really pleased that the DCMS committee in Parliament has today announced an inquiry into full fibre rollout – and it’s vital that during that, the consumer is kept front and centre of people’s minds.

There are also vital roles to be played by both government and Ofcom.

At TalkTalk, we’ve always been clear that competition is the only way to drive full fibre investment that Britain needs.

We’ve also been from our inception the voice of the customer, delivering the fairest prices.

As Ofcom considers the future of the wholesale fixed telecoms market in its current review, we would urge it to think of those customers – who must be the most important consideration.

Under the current approach, our concern is that people will fail to receive the high-speed connections they have been promised while at the same time facing higher bills years in advance of improvements coming. There will also be sections of customers stranded on copper-only.

So we would urge Ofcom to avoid raising wholesale prices too early and only do so as access to full fibre becomes available.

This is the best way to encourage investment from new entrants, support retail competition and protect consumers from higher charges before they have access to faster, more reliable services.

Alongside competition, a successful full fibre future needs a scale national customer base. In the US, Google tried to rollout full fibre without an existing base – and it simply didn’t work.

Network builders need to work with large ISPs, such as TalkTalk, so there is an existing customer base that can be migrated quickly and affordably onto these faster services.

This gives investors the confidence that take-up thresholds can be met. 

Competitive pricing is also critical. The ambition must be for full fibre to be available to everyone at an affordable price.

It cannot be priced at a significant premium.

Not only does that risk excluding low-income groups from essential digital infrastructure we could also be left with expensive white elephants in cities across the UK, with cutting-edge infrastructure left unused by most homes and businesses.

Our experience in York shows, that when it is priced appropriately, FTTP can be a mass-market product.

And that should be the case no matter where you live – in a town or a rural area.

I was hugely encouraged by the Government’s commitment to invest £5bn to ensure rural connectivity and look forward to hearing further details in the Budget next week.

It is critical though, that any subsidy must be available to all network builders on a competitive basis.

And whether it’s full fibre, superfast or copper broadband, as an industry we have a responsibility to treat our customers fairly.

Fairness

Since TalkTalk was launched at the turn of the millennium, we have consistently challenged the industry to be fairer and campaigned for positive change.

TalkTalk fully supports Ofcom’s fairness agenda and we’ve made some significant commitments over the last few years:

  • We’re one of only a few providers to guarantee no mid-contract broadband price increases.
  • While now mandatory by Ofcom since last month, we’ve been sending communications to our customers as they approach contract end outlining better deals available for them.
  • We’re making it easier for new and existing customers to access the best deals.
  • We will also switch vulnerable customers who are out-of-contract to a better deal.

It’s time for the whole industry to properly address unfair tariffs and up its game when it comes to the support available to the most vulnerable in society.

And that should be the case not only for our legal obligations, there are a number of voluntary measures to ensure customer fairness and transparency which TalkTalk has proudly adopted because it is the right thing to do.

Whether that’s on auto-compensation; transparency about broadband speeds; or doing all we can to stop scams. It’s a shame that not everyone in this room has chosen so far to sign up to some of these commitments and we hope that they change their minds.

For everyone

And that fairness should extend to customers no matter where they are in the UK. I’m determined that we should be able to provide the same first-class service whether you’re right in the North of Scotland or in the South of Cornwall.

After last year’s election result, the Prime Minister spoke of the trust placed in him by new supporters in communities in the North, the Midlands and Wales.  

Delivering better connectivity will be a key test for the Government when it comes to its commitment to areas who have felt they were left behind.

This year we will continue play our part to deliver a fairer distribution of economic power beyond London, the South East and our highly successful university towns and cities.

Firstly we’ve accelerated investment in the north’s digital infrastructure.

Since 2015, we’ve been building a new full fibre broadband network providng the faster, reliable connectivity a modern digital economy needs.

We made a conscious choice not to start in London or the South East. Instead we started in York where we passed nearly 50,000 homes. 

The recent sale of our FibreNation business  to CityFibre for £200m will acccelerate full fibre rollout in the region.

And just as importantly as infrastructure, companies can choose where we invest in people and talent.

That is why, as I said at the start, we made a deliberate choice to move our HQ and business to Salford.

It’s now over 12 months since we announced the move and I’m pleased to say that we’re coming to the end of the transition phase.

Most of our staff are based there now, right in the heart of the Northern Powerhouse.

We created over 400 new jobs while at the same time ensuring our current employees progress in their careers.

We’re thrilled with the skills and expertise we have attracted so far -- we’ve had people joining us from several well-known organisations including Manchester United, Sky and Vodafone.

And just as important, our staff are becoming happier.  We have a +12 employee NPS and for new starters, NPS is now at an amazing +56.

However, our HQ isn’t just an office for us.

We are embedding ourselves in the local community and economy.

We’ve already got a great partnership with the local council and we’re building long-term relationships with local universities, bringing in talent to help us think through issues from climate change to customer service and employee wellbeing. We are also sponsoring the tuition costs for three local students at University Academy92.

There are also some world class universities in Greater Manchester.

So for a tech company like TalkTalk, we are confident that the pipeline is strong enough so we can continue to recruit the best young talent over the coming years.

And we want to ensure that talent is diverse as possible.

For example, just 17% of those working in technology in the UK are female.

This needs to change.

It won’t come overnight, and TalkTalk won’t be able to do it alone.

But by working with partners and local universities, we can drive the inclusion agenda, promote diversity and ensure we create a level playing field so everyone can benefit from the current wave of investment in the north west.

This is TalkTalk’s contribution to rebalancing the economy.

There are lots of fantastic companies in the region.

We really hope more follow us and see the benefit of life beyond the M25

Conclusion

So, to re-cap.

The time is now for scale investment in full fibre and for a fairer society.

For full fibre, three things really matter:

  • A competitive market – this is a shared challenge and we need to allow everyone to play their part
  • Scale customer bases – that can be lifted quickly and affordably onto new networks
  • Sensible pricing – that allows everyone to benefit  

Ensuring world-class digital infrastructure in all corners of the country is now essential.

The question is whether all of us in this room can step up to the challenge.

If we can level the playing field, we can ensure that the digital economy truly works for everyone.