Tag: BT

You may have recently noticed construction workers from different businesses digging up the roads/pavements near where you live. You may also have noticed them laying fibre optic cables. Why has this been happening? Does it make economic sense for different companies to dig up the same stretch of pavement and lay similar cables next to one another?

For many years the UK had one national fixed communication network that was owned by British Telecom (BT) – the traditional phone landline made from copper wire. This is now operated by OpenReach – part of the BT group but a legally separate division. In addition to this national infrastructure, Virgin Media (formed in 2007 from the merged cable operators, Telewest and NTL) has gradually built up a rival fixed broadband network that now covers just over 50 per cent of the country.

Although customers have only had very limited choice over which fixed communication network to use, they have had far greater choice over which Internet service provider (ISP) to sign up for. This has been possible as the industry regulator, Ofcom, forces OpenReach to provide rival ISPs such as Sky Broadband, TalkTalk and Zen with access to its network.

Expansion of the fibre optic network

Recent government policy has tried to encourage and incentivise the replacement of the copper wire network with one that is fully fibre. This is often referred to as Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) or Fibre to the Home (FTTH). A fixed network of fully fibre broadband enables much faster download speeds and many argue that it is vital for the future competitiveness of the UK economy.

Replacing the existing fixed communication network with fibre optic cables is expensive. It can involve major civil works: i.e. the digging up of roads and pavements to install new ducts to lay the fibre optic cables inside.

Over a hundred companies, that are not part of either OpenReach or Virgin Media O2 (the parent company of Virgin Media), have recently been digging up pavements/roads and laying new fibre optic cables. Known as alternative network providers (altnets) or independent networks, these businesses vary in size, with many of them securing large loans from banks and private investors. By the middle of 2023, 2.5 million premises in the UK had access to at least two or more of these independent networks.

After a slow initial response to the altnets, OpenReach has recently responded by rapidly installing FTTP. The business is currently building 62 000 connections every week and plans to have 25 million premises connected by the end of 2026. In July 2022, Virgin Media O2 announced that it was establishing a new joint venture with InfraVia Capital Partners. Called Nexfibre, this business aims to connect 5 million premises to FTTP by 2026.

Is the fibre optic network a natural monopoly?

Some people argue that the fixed communication network is an example of a natural monopoly – an industry where a single firm can supply the whole market at a lower average cost than two or more firms. To what extent is this true?

An industry is a natural monopoly where the minimum efficient scale of production (MES) is larger than the market demand for the good/service. This is more likely to occur where there are significant economies of scale. Digging up roads/pavements, installing new ducts and laying fibre optic cable are clear examples of fixed costs. Once the network is built, the marginal cost of supplying customers is relatively small. Therefore, this industry has significant economies of scale and a relatively large MES. This has led many people to argue that building rival fixed communication networks is wasteful duplication and will lead to higher costs and prices.

However, when judging if a sector is a natural monopoly, it is always important to remember that a comparison needs to be made between the MES and the size of the market. An industry could have significant economies of scale, but not be an example of a natural monopoly if the market demand is significantly larger than the MES.

In the case of the fixed communication network, the size of the market will vary significantly between different regions of the country. In densely populated urban areas, such as large towns and cities, the demand for services provided via these networks is likely to be relatively large. Therefore, the MES could be smaller than the size of the market, making competition between network suppliers both possible and desirable. For example, competition may incentivise firms to innovate, become more efficient and reduce costs.

Research undertaken for the government by the consultancy business, Frontier Economics, found that at least a third of UK households live in areas where competition between three or more different networks is economically desirable.

By contrast, in more sparsely populated rural areas, demand for the services provided by these networks will be smaller. The fixed costs per household of installing the network over longer distances will also be larger. Therefore, the MES is more likely to be greater than the size of the market.

The same research undertaken by Frontier Economics found that around 10 per cent of households live in areas where the fixed communication network is a natural monopoly. The demand and cost conditions for another 10 per cent of households meant it is not commercially viable to have any suppliers.

Therefore, policies towards the promotion of competition, regulation, and government support for the fixed communication network might have to be adjusted depending on the specific demand and cost conditions in a particular region.




  1. Explain the difference between fixed and wireless communication networks.
  2. Draw a diagram to illustrate a profit-maximising natural monopoly. Outline some of the implications for allocative efficiency.
  3. Discuss some of the issues with regulating natural monopolies, paying particular attention to price regulation.
  4. The term ‘overbuild’ is often used to describe a situation where more than one fibre broadband network is being constructed in the same place. Some people argue that incumbent network suppliers deliberately choose to use this term to imply that the outcome is harmful for society. Discuss this argument.
  5. An important part of government policy in this sector has been the Duct and Pole Access Strategy (DPA). Illustrate the impact of this strategy on the average cost curve and the minimum efficient scale of production for fibre broadband networks.
  6. Draw a diagram to illustrate a region where (a) it is economically viable to have two or more fibre optic broadband network suppliers and (b) where it is commercially unviable to have any broadband network suppliers without government support.
  7. Some people argue that network competition provides strong incentives for firms to innovate, to become more efficient and reduce costs. Draw a diagram to illustrate this argument.
  8. Explain why many ‘altnets’ are so opposed to OpenReach’s new ‘Equinox 2’ pricing scheme for its fibre network.

Firms are increasingly having to take into account the interests of a wide range of stakeholders, such as consumers, workers, the local community and society in general (see the blog, Evolving Economics). However, with many firms, the key stakeholders that influence decisions are shareholders. And because many shareholders are footloose and not committed to any one company, their main interests are short-term profit and share value. This leads to under-investment and too little innovation. It has also led to excessive pay for senior executives, which for many years has grown substantially faster than the pay of their employees. Indeed, executive pay in the UK is now, per pound of turnover, the highest in the world.

So is there an alternative model of capitalism, which better serves the interests of a wider range of stakeholders? One model is that of employee ownership. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the John Lewis Partnership, which owns both the department stores and the Waitrose chain of supermarkets. As the partnership’s site claims, ‘when you’re part of it, you put your heart into it’. Although the John Lewis Partnership is the largest in the UK, there are over 330 employee-owned businesses across the UK, with over 200 000 employee owners contributing some £30bn per year to UK GDP. Again, to quote the John Lewis site:

Businesses range from manufacturers, to community health services, to insurance brokers. Together they deliver 4% of UK GDP annually, with this contribution growing. They are united by an ethos that puts people first, involving the workforce in key decision-making and realising the potential and commitment of their employees.

A recent example of a company moving, at least partly, in this direction is BT, which has announced that that every one of its 100 000 employees will get shares worth £500 every year. Employees will need to hold their shares for at least three years before they can sell them. The aim is to motivate staff and help the company achieve a turnaround from its recent lacklustre performance, which had resulted in its laying off 13 000 of its 100 000-strong workforce.

Another recent example of a company adopting employee ownership is Richer Sounds, the retail TV and hi-fi chain. Its owner and founder, Julian Richer, announced that he had transferred 60% of his shares into a John Lewis-style trust for the chain’s 531 employees. In addition to owning 60% of the company, employees will receive £1000 for every year they have worked for the retailer. A new advisory council, made up of current staff, will advise the management board, which is taking over the running of the firm from Richer.

According to the Employee Ownership Association (EOA), a further 50 businesses are preparing to follow suit and adopt forms of employee ownership. As The Conversation article linked below states:

As a form of stakeholder capitalism, the evidence shows that employee ownership boosts employee commitment and motivation, which leads to greater innovation and productivity.
Indeed, a study of employee ownership models in the US published in April found it narrowed gender and racial wealth gaps. Surveying 200 employees from 21 companies with employee ownership plans, Joseph Blasi and his colleagues at Rutgers University found employees had significantly more wealth than the average US worker.
The researchers also found that the participatory management practices that accompanied the employee ownership schemes led to employees improving their communication skills and learning management skills, which had helped them make better financial decisions at home.

But, although employee ownership brings benefits, not only to the employees themselves, but also more widely to society, there is no simple mechanism for achieving it when shareholders are unlikely to want to relinquish their shares. Employee buyout schemes require funding; and banks are often cautious about providing such funding. What is more, there needs to be an employee trust overseeing the running of the company which takes a long-term perspective and not just that of current employees, who might otherwise be tempted to sell the company to another seeking to take it over.




  1. What are the main benefits of employee ownership?
  2. Are there any disadvantages of employee ownership and, if so, what are they?
  3. What are the main barriers to the adoption of employee ownership?
  4. What are the main recommendations from The Ownership Effect Inquiry? (See linked report above.)
  5. What are the findings of the responses to the employee share ownership questions in the US General Social Survey (GSS)? (See linked Global Banking & Finance Review article above.)

The government plans to improve broadband access across the country and BT is a key company within this agenda. However, one of the problems with BT concerns its natural monopoly over the cable network and the fact that this restricts competition and hence might prevent the planned improvements.

Ofcom, the communications watchdog has now said that BT must open up its cable network, making it easier for other companies to access. This will allow companies such as Sky, Vodafone and TalkTalk to invest in the internet network in the UK, addressing their criticisms that BT has under-invested in Openreach and this is preventing universal access to decent and affordable broadband. There have been calls for Ofcom to require BT and Openreach to separate, but Ofcom’s report hasn’t required this, though has noted that it ‘remains an option’.

BT has been criticised as relying on old cables that are not sufficient to provide the superfast broadband that the government wants. The report may come as a relief to BT who had perhaps expected that Ofcom might require it to sell its Openreach operation, but it will also remain concerned about Ofcom’s constant monitoring in the years to come. BT commented:

“Openreach is already one of the most heavily regulated businesses in the world but we have volunteered to accept tighter regulation … We are happy to let other companies use our ducts and poles if they are genuinely keen to invest very large sums as we have done.”

Its rivals will also be in two minds about the report, happy that some action will be taken, but wanting more, as Ofcom’s report suggests that “Openreach still has an incentive to make decisions in the interests of BT, rather than BT’s competitors”. A spokesperson for Vodafone said:

“BT still remains a monopoly provider with a regulated business running at a 28% profit margin …We urge Ofcom to ensure BT reinvests the £4bn in excess profits Openreach has generated over the last decade in bringing fibre to millions of premises across the country, and not just make half-promises to spend an unsubstantiated amount on more old copper cable.”

The impact of Ofcom’s report on the competitiveness of this market will be seen over the coming years and with a freer market, we might expect prices to come down and see improved broadband coverage across the UK. In order to achieve the government’s objective with regards to broadband coverage, a significant investment is needed in the network. With BT having to relinquish its monopoly power and the market becoming more competitive, this may be the first step towards universal access to superfast broadband. The following articles consider this report and its implications.

Ofcom opens a road to faster broadband The Guardian, Harriet Meyer and Rob Davies (28/2/16)
Ofcom: BT must open up its Openreach network Sky News (25/2/16)
How Ofcom’s review of BT Openreach could improve your internet service Independent, Doug Bolton (25/2/16)
Ofcom’s digital review boosts faltering broadband network Financial Times, Daniel Thomas (25/2/16)
The Observer view on broadband speeds in Britain The Observer, Editorial (28/2/16)
Ofcom tells BT to open up cable network to rivals’ BBC News (25/2/16)
Ofcom should go further and break up BT Financial Times, John Gapper (25/2/16)
BT escapes forced Openreach spin-off but Ofcom tightens regulations International Business Times, Bauke Schram (25/2/16)


  1. Why does BT have a monopoly and how might this affect the price, output and profits in this market?
  2. Ofcom’s report suggests that the market must be opened up and this would increase competitiveness. How is this expected to work?
  3. What are the benefits and costs of using regulation in a case such as this, as opposed to some other form of intervention?
  4. How might a more competitive market increase investment in this market?
  5. If the market does become more competitive, what be the likely consequences for consumers and firms?