No ‘cliff edge’ for Openreach jobs as fibre build nears completion, says CEO  

Telecoms & Financial Services, Openreach

Openreach CEO Clive Selley speaking to union reps at a CWU Openreach national briefing last week

Unprecedented recruitment in recent years associated with Openreach’s turbo-charged rollout of high speed broadband won’t turn into an equally unprecedented redundancy nightmare as fibre build nears competition in the latter part of the decade, the company’s CEO has pledged.

Speaking at a CWU briefing sessions for Openreach reps in central London last week, Clive Selley directly addressed union fears that the company’s direct labour recruitment spree could go sharply into reverse as the ‘once in a generation’ drive to build the 21st Century network nears completion in just five or so years time.

Delivering a message that will be hugely welcome to Openreach’s direct labour team member workforce – which has swelled from just under 32,000 in the middle of the 2010s to over 37,000 today – the CEO insisted he believed there would be more than enough work to go round for years after the company’s target of reaching 25 million homes has been reached in 2026.

“It’s a legitimate question (that the union has been asking),” he stressed, “but I do not believe there will be a ‘cliff edge’ because we will still have a set of engineering projects that are national, large scale and that only we are qualified to do.”

Referring to four main work areas –  namely the mammoth task of connecting customers to the new network; the final phase of fibre build in the hardest to reach areas; copper recovery  and exchange decommissioning – Mr Selley continued: “That’s what people will be doing throughout 2027 and into the early 2030s, I believe.”

“There’s a considerable amount of work to be done even after the bulk of the build is complete. By 2026, in our plan, only 8.5 million customers will have been provisioned on the new network – the network is 25 million but the provisioning is only 8.5 million. We have 24 million customers today, so there’s going to be a bow-wave of sales and provisioning to be done against the new network in the second half of the decade.

“That’s Project 1, but Project 2 is that we’re not actually finished with the build. We will not stop at 25 million. We won’t do loads more – we may get to 28 million – and you may be thinking 3 million isn’t a lot – but those three million aren’t an average three million. They will be very rural homes and it is much more engineering intensive to deliver to very rural parts of the UK.

“It will also probably be funded by Government  subsidies – both the Westminster Government, the Scottish Government and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Governments – so a lot of people will still be doing build. They won’t deliver huge millions (of homes), but it will still take a lot of them.”

Moving on to ‘Project 3’ the CEO continued: “We will also be going in much more aggressively for copper recovery.  If you think about a world where there is a huge amount of fibre – and where we are progressively moving costumers off the copper network to the fibre network – in the second part of the 2020s we will be recovering the E-side cables that are all still there. We’ve only removed junction cables to date – and I have some ‘back of a fag packet’ calculations which say that copper is worth an awful lot of money, and it’s quite labour intensive to pull it out.

“The subtlety  is that there will be some ‘grooming’ involved, as  not all cables from 2025/6 onwards will have been freed of all copper customers. There will still be stragglers so you will need to ‘groom’ them onto small cables and then pull out the big cable. One of the very few ‘positives’ about Covid is that commodity prices have gone up, so copper is worth a lot more today than it was two years ago, and it ain’t going down anytime soon!

“So that’s Project 3;  Project 4 – which will also occupy a lot of engineering resource in the late 2020s – is exchange closure. Today we have about 5,500 exchanges in the UK. In the future, and particularly beyond 2026,  we will only need about a thousand.

“All the others, over time, will close, and just think about what is in all those other exchanges and how much engineering effort will be involved in decommissioning and recovering all of that equipment!  It’s huge – 4,500 exchanges, with all the old kit that is in there, and re-routing all the Ethernet circuits that are in some of those exchanges.

“There is a huge amount of engineering effort that will be needed right through the 202O’s – so there’s no cliff edge,” he concluded.”