October 31, 2019 / 7:20 AM / a month ago

Britain needs to prioritise broadband after election - BT CEO

LONDON (Reuters) - BT urged on Thursday whichever party wins Britain’s election to prioritize broadband to give the company certainty to invest billions of pounds in an ambitious plan to roll out fibre connections to every home and business.

FILE PHOTO: A BT (British Telecom) company logo is pictured on the side of a convention centre in Liverpool northern England, April 9, 2016. REUTERS/Phil Noble/File Photo

Chief Executive Philip Jansen is recasting BT, the country’s biggest broadband and mobile phone provider, as the national champion the United Kingdom needs to upgrade communications for consumers and businesses.

BT is ready to accelerate a fibre broadband roll out that is already passing a home or business every 26 seconds, but needs the government and the regulator to create conditions that allow it to make a fair return, he said.

Political certainty, however, is in short supply with Britain’s exit from the European Union delayed again to January 2020, and the country heading to the polls in six weeks in the third national election in four years.

The chief executive of regulator Ofcom, which is due to open a consultation on broadband in December, is also standing down.

“We need every political party to ensure that fibring up the nation is one of the top priories of the next UK government, whoever that is,” Jansen told reporters after the company reported its first-half results.

He said Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ambition to roll out 1 gigabit fibre to all of Britain by 2025 would be “extremely difficult” to achieve, but BT was up to the challenge if it could make fair and reasonable returns on the investment.

“It would need the regulatory enablers put in stone as quickly as possible and it will need government to make it a national mission,” he said.

As well as building fibre networks to reach 4 million premises by 2021 and accelerating its 5G mobile roll-out, BT has launched products that bundle broadband and mobile, brought its brand to the high street and is improving customer service.

However, despite increasing demand for data, with a new instalment of video game Fortnite causing record demand this month, first-half revenue and earnings were hurt by regulation and declines in services like traditional phone calls.

BT reported revenue of 11.47 billion pounds ($14.80 billion), down 1%, and adjusted core earnings of 3.92 billion pounds, down 3%.

BT said it could fund the 25-30 billion pound cost of building a full fibre network by issuing debt, reallocating capex, disposing assets and by cutting its dividend.

But it did not make any pre-emptive changes to the dividend policy on Thursday, declaring an interim payout of 4.62 pence per share, and said it expected to hold the full-year dividend unchanged at 15.40 pence. Its shares were up 2% by 1226 GMT.

($1 = 0.7735 pounds)

Editing by Kate Holton and Emelia Sithole-Matarise

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