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What is Openreach?

By Aaron Howdle | Monday, March 22nd 2021

You have seen the vans driving around, but what exactly is Openreach? If you get broadband from a provider other than Virgin Media, such as Sky, Plusnet, Talk Talk and many others, your service is provided using the Openreach network of cables and exchanges. Openreach is the hidden hand behind your broadband service. Your provider buys access to the Openreach network to carry its broadband and telephone services.

In the following guide we will take a look at what Openreach is and how it works. We will also dive into a little of the history behind the company, and hopefully answer any questions you have regarding what Openreach does.

What is Openreach?

If your broadband is supplied via a phone line then odds-on you are using the Openreach network, regardless of which internet service provider you use. Openreach is a subsidiary of BT which runs the network infrastructure part of the business. Openreach installs and maintains all the cabling, street cabinets and connections to the local exchanges. However you do not need to be a BT customer to be using its network of cables. Most broadband providers, with the exception of Virgin Media use the Openreach network to get broadband into your home.

History of Openreach

Openreach only recently became a separate entity to BT, following pressure from MPs and BT’s competitors, which led to a review by the telecoms watchdog Ofcom. BT originally had control of the network which most other broadband providers use. There was a sense that faults were addressed more slowly for other broadband providers which used BT’s network and the status quo was seen as uncompetitive.

MP’s initially called for BT to sell off the network part of the company, but in the end this was considered too complicated because of various long term covenants and responsibilities such as staff pensions, so instead the network was made into a subsidiary of BT which operates separately and is regulated separately to provide a fair service to the broadband providers who use it.

It was back in 2005 that Ofcom furst ruled that the network infrastructure part of BT should become a separate division. Openreach, as the network infrastructure brand, was then launched in 2006. This led to short-term savings for broadband customers, but has also been blamed for longer term costs. The reduction in investment which the split caused has been pointed to as a reason for the UK’s slow fibre broadband roll-out. In addition the types of fibre broadband available have been less than optimal. For example, rather than a more expensive, but far superior full-fibre service, most customers will get the cheaper-to-implement G Fast fibre which was rolled out as a cheap shortcut, but caps speeds at around 100Mbps.

Alternatives to the Openreach network

For most people in the UK the only alternatives to Openreach are either Virgin Media or 4G/5G broadband over a mobile network. There are however some other options, specific to certain areas or criteria. Let’s take a look at some of them.

  • Virgin Media – Virgin Media offers much faster broadband speeds than services which use Openreach. It is widely available, though it is generally more expensive. However you can choose maximum speeds which are between three to ten times faster than Openreach’s maximum speeds. The speed you can get depends on where you live and which broadband package you select
  • 4G/5G mobile broadband – With the roll-out of 5G, mobile broadband is a real competitor to Openreach. Offering great speeds. 4G is also an alternative to Openreach in areas where Openreach speeds are low. You can get mobile broadband from most mobile providers, and some also offer home hubs which connect to the internet via mobile networks, rather than through cables
  • Satellite Broadband – Broadband via a satellite dish. It is a good option for places where it is difficult to get an ordinary broadband connection such as remote islands or rural communities. The speeds cannot match that of fibre broadband, and latency (the time it takes for information to travel to and from your computer to the internet) is high. However it is improving all the time and new projects such as Starlink are bringing fibre broadband speeds to satellite broadband
  • Gigaclear – Is a network with the aim of bringing fast fibre broadband to rural communities. It is not available everywhere. You can run a postcode check on its website to see if you can get it
  • Hyperoptic – Supplies super-fast fibre optic broadband all the way to your property, with no copper cables between the street cabinet and your home. However, It is only available in central London

Frequently asked questions

Can I contact Openreach if I have a problem with my broadband?

Generally speaking you should contact your Broadband provider, which will put in a request with Openreach if they are needed to correct the fault.

Why did an Openreach engineer come to connect my broadband when I am with Sky/Talk Talk/Plusnet or another provider?

Openreach install and maintain the on street cabinets, exchanges and cabling which carry your broadband service. This is then leased by your provider. Generally speaking, when you have a new broadband service or telephone line connected, an Openreach engineer will do the work at the street cabinet.

Why can’t I get superfast broadband in my area?

Openreach has been rolling out fibre for some time now - many think too slowly. If your area has a relatively small population, the sad fact is that Openreach may not consider it worth the investment to install superfast fibre in your community. However as time goes on and technology improves, all areas should eventually be served.

Is Openreach still part of BT?

Yes, it is a subsidiary of BT. However, it is supposed to have a high degree of independence. Openreach states that it “treats all Communications Providers equally”

Can I deal directly with Openreach?

You can contact Openreach directly if you wish to have particular work undertaken or installed. This would be for things like having a phone line run to a new build home.

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