This article orginally appeared in the Daily Telegraph.
The UK telecoms industry may appear to casual observers rather like Game of Thrones, with several warring factions intent on either allying with, or assassinating, one another.
Certainly from where I sit today – sadly in West London, not Westeros – the view is troubling. The country’s largest broadband and mobile providers (BT and EE) are merging in what may prove to be a marriage even less workable than the alliance of the Lannisters and the Tyrells. The result is a leviathan company more powerful than any our industry has seen before; more so even than pre-privatision BT.
Two of the UK’s four mobile network operators (O2 and Three) are also trying to unite their Houses, meaning less choice and potentially much higher bills. And of course the debate continues over the future of our telecoms network, Openreach. All telecoms providers have to use Openreach to supply broadband. But currently this critical piece of national infrastructure is being firmly sat on by the reigning incumbent, BT.
Meanwhile, our formidable new Queen of Regulation, Sharon White (who definitely has a few dragon’s eggs under her desk at Ofcom), issued a stark warning last year that “the warm glow of vibrant competition” enjoyed by the UK for the past decade could soon be blasted away by “the chill wind of consolidation”. Translated for Game of Thrones fans, that can mean only one thing: “Winter is coming”.
The trouble in Game of Thrones, and in the real world of telecoms, is that the idea that the good times might be ending can be a difficult one. In a time of plenty (in telecoms terms that’s low prices, thriving competition, and more people with access to more technology and services), the thought that something nasty may be coming over the Wall is often not well received – particularly by incumbents with a vested interest in the status quo, for whom conquering neighbouring territories is much more exciting than building stable foundations for the future. But waiting too long to acknowledge and confront the challenge often can be disastrous.
Many who have sat on the Iron Throne learned to their peril that, while you are busy filling your war chest, the people you failed to serve as ruler are storming the battlements.
This message has ostensibly fallen on deaf ears at BT, who last week dismissed concerns from 121 cross-party MPs that UK broadband needs a radical overhaul. So many MPs of uniting on any issue is a clear signal that drastic change is needed.
Between them, these MPs represent millions of constituents who voice the same frustrations. People whose service is slow or unreliable; who can’t access the new products and services they want. And of course those hundreds of thousands of people who still, in 2016, have limited, or no, internet access. People are switching less, and very soon (with BT/EE and potentially also O2 and Three merging) they will have fewer providers and less competitive deals to choose from.
The thriving competitive market which brought a decade of increased coverage, innovation and low prices, is waning. The future is a potentially bleak landscape, with power concentrated between a few large companies with little incentive to offer customers the best possible prices, service, or new products. This is not the future customers deserve and it’s not the one we, as an industry, should be condemning them to.
So yes, things need to change. A huge challenge lies ahead for our industry to ensure we provide a brilliant, world-leading digital future for the UK. Facing into it now will avoid years of distraction, denial and delay. And our north star, I think, must be to return always to the fundamental question: what’s the best thing for the customer?
But we also believe now, more than ever, that a robust regulator is needed to champion consumers’ interests and uphold competition. Ofcom’s strength is hampered by a legal quirk which leaves it uniquely vulnerable to industry lawsuits. As a result, Ofcom is by far our most appealed regulator.
Under constant threat of expensive, bloody legal battles (sometimes lasting up to a decade), its ability to make swift, decisive policy is diminished. Our industry (and I include TalkTalk in this) is caught in a vicious cycle of litigation which doesn’t help customers one bit. That needs to end. Naturally, reform means being willing to risk regulatory decisions which aren’t in our favour. But this is more than outweighed by the benefits of a confident regulator.
Changes to pricing and switching rules are also long overdue. Last week, the Advertising Standards Agency revealed that four out of five consumers can’t tell the true cost of broadband contracts from adverts. The industry habit (again, I include TalkTalk here) is to offer attractivhttp://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/12117852/BT-workers-caught-on-tape-mocking-report-into-firms-poor-broadband-services.htmle headline prices on broadband that exclude more costly charges, like landlines. This inadvertently makes it harder to compare deals.
TalkTalk has been calling for single headline pricing for some time – our pilot ultrafast project in York already does it. But until the whole market moves to single prices, any company advertising like this will struggle to compete with what look like better deals elsewhere. Equally, as more people choose to take landline, internet, mobile and TV services together, the industry needs to co-operate better to enable customers to move easily between providers. Customers will only benefit from bundled services if they can shift all elements of their package at the same time, something we don’t have today.
A bold Ofcom could tackle these problems and TalkTalk would support them in doing so. But our support is unlikely to be enough. The whole industry needs to recognise these things are right for customers, and therefore ultimately better for all our businesses in the long term. How likely that is, with so many telecoms providers off playing the Game of Thrones, remains to be seen.