BT aims to shut down traditional phone network to battle US tech giants

The telecoms giant is planning to move all domestic and business customers to internet-based voice calls within a decade, but under current Ofcom rules must continue to provide a traditional phone service.

BT is now urging the regulator to lift the obligation, a move that it says will have no impact on the majority of customers who are already using internet phones and allow it to invest more in broadband upgrades, The Telegraph reports.

Mark Shurmer, BT’s group director of regulatory affairs, said: “We believe obsolete regulation should be rolled back, rather than clinging on until the last user dies.

“What we are looking for is a kind of ‘sunset clause’ that will help customers to plan.”

The obligation to maintain the traditional phone network falls on Openreach, the closely regulated BT division responsible for the national telecoms infrastructure, which must provide retail rivals such as Sky and TalkTalk with wholesale access on equal terms.

The future of Openreach is currently up for debate, with Sky and TalkTalk arguing it should be fully separated from the rest of BT to create a financially independent company. Ofcom is looking at the issue as part of its once-a-decade review of the communications market.

BT is however arguing instead for deregulation. As well approval for the end of traditional voice call systems, it is pushing to be allowed to take better advantage of modern software to help it slash costs from Openreach by controlling its network from central BT data centres.

Under the Ofcom rules, drawn up a decade ago, Openreach’s data must be kept physically separate from the rest of BT data to ensure other parts of the company cannot gain an advantage over rivals. BT argues that the modern ability to create virtual walls within data centres means the regulations are out of date.

Mr Shurmer said such savings will “level the playing field” between all telecoms companies and “over-the-top” internet companies such as Facebook, who use the network and compete for customers via mobile apps such as WhatsApp, but do not face the same regulatory burdens.

BT is supporting calls that have also been privately made by Vodafone for such apps to be forced to connect to each other, so WhatsApp users would be able to text those on Apple’s iMessage, for instance.

Mr Shurmer said: “Regulation has not kept up at all with the growth in over-the-top services. Some of the [Openreach] undertakings have basically become quite outdated.”

BT’s deregulatory push also includes a general call for the red tap it faces to be cut. Some of Openreach’s obligations are covered by both European and UK regulations, increasing paperwork and overheads.

Mr Shurmer said: “This is an opportunity to clear up the overlaps between the [Openreach] undertakings and EU legislation and regulate in one place only, so it’s more simple, efficient and reduces duplication.

“It’s a bit like a tax regime that becomes so complicated that nobody really understands it, and you have to wonder if that complexity deters investment”

Dido Harding, the chief executive of TalkTalk, said she would support less red tape, but only if Openreach was separated from BT.

She said: “One of the reasons we think a separate Openreach would be better is it would allow a lot of deregulation.”

Ofcom is due to publish a paper to kick off the formal phase of its strategic market review in mid-July. It is understood the document will not signpost the regulator’s plans but invite views on potential areas for reform.

Sharon White, the chief executive of Ofcom, has already said that the emergence of internet players could allow a “lighter approach” to telecoms regulation.