Associate feature: Keeping us connected
Openreach is working hard to keep Scotland connected during the COVID-19 outbreak and beyond
“COVID-19 has highlighted to everybody how digital connectivity matters in everything we do,” Openreach Scotland chair Brendan Dick says.
“Whether it’s working from home or running a business, home educating or communicating with family and friends. Broadly speaking, as a result of a lot of work over the last few years, the network has held up extremely well. We will need it more than ever as we emerge from this crisis.”
Openreach, which provides the biggest telephone and broadband network in the UK, has seen internet traffic across Scotland increase by 20 per cent during lockdown.
With unprecedented numbers of people working from home and keeping connected to family and friends online, Openreach’s frontline engineers are key workers in the COVID-19 pandemic as they continue to provide vital services to keep Scotland connected.
“Openreach has engineers serving customers in every part of Scotland, from Shetland down to the Borders and every point in the middle,” Dick says.
“For a whole variety of technical reasons, in terms of critical national infrastructure and others, those engineers are key workers. And that key worker status is critical.”
Openreach engineers, who would normally be going inside 25,000 homes every day to provide new services or to fix faults, are now using innovative new ways to complete these tasks.
Dick tells Holyrood how Openreach has adapted to keep the community, and the company’s 3,200 staff in Scotland, safe.
“We’re very much trying to adapt to what is the new normal, because the new normal will be here for a long time,” he says.
“Engineers out in the field, who previously might have gone into someone’s house to complete something, are now using apps like Facebook or WhatsApp to show people inside the house how to do what they might have done in the past.
“If my colleagues in the field weren’t literally innovating on the job, you’d find an awful lot of jobs wouldn’t get completed. Clearly, I think innovation and the speed of decision-making is happening across the whole country much faster than it might typically do.”
Dick says it has taken a “massive pool of effort across the whole organisation” to continue Openreach’s work during the pandemic.
“Doing things safely and building capability is vital,” he stresses.
“We’re making sure that as we’re released from this, Scotland’s society and its economy are ready to go into the digital world as best it can.”
Openreach’s focus is now on repairing and maintaining connections that support Scotland’s national infrastructure, including providing connections for the new temporary hospital in Glasgow, NHS Louisa Jordan, and other NHS sites, in pharmacies, emergency services and food distribution outlets.
Other priorities are the banking system, broadcast transmission network, vulnerable customers and those without any internet service. Unless a customer fits into one of these categories, engineers are not currently entering premises.
New services will only be provided where it’s possible without going inside a property, unless that service is essential, and Openreach’s customers – communication providers like Sky, BT and TalkTalk – are helping to identify priority customers.
The company is also continuing to build fast broadband and business connectivity where work can be carried out safely, as it will be crucial to helping Scotland bounce back economically.
Dick says workers are implementing social distancing measures: “For example, engineers are now travelling alone in vans, so two or three of them don’t jump in a van together.
“Wherever possible they maintain social distancing out in the field, they’re very careful about how they use kit and clothing and a range of other things so that we make it as safe as it can be.
“We’ve built up a whole new series of guidelines, which we’re sharing with people that we work with – roads authorities and government – to demonstrate that we’re working in a way that’s totally safe for employees and for the public. That’s all working pretty well, but it’s something we have to be on top of all the time.”
Communication is key to keep people who can work, at work, and Dick says ensuring employees are heard if they have concerns is “at the heart” of how Openreach operates.
“The dialogue that people have with their colleagues or their manager is vital to making sure that we keep going as effectively as we can and so far, it’s working well,” he says.
“There’s no substitute for talking to each other.”
Unfortunately, fake news about the pandemic has directly affected some communications workers in the field, including false claims that the new 5G network is connected to the spread of coronavirus.
This myth led to communications regulator Ofcom issuing a statement to say the claims were “wrong”, adding: “There is no scientific basis or credible evidence for these claims.”
The claims have been damaging and dangerous for many engineers, including some at Openreach, which has had around 40 incidents reported across the UK where engineers were subjected to verbal abuse or intimidation “linked to both their presence in the street and bogus theories about a link between 5G and COVID-19”. A small number of these have taken place in Scotland.
“It’s a bit crazy,” Dick says. “Incidents have happened across the UK in terms of 5G, but in addition, you do get some people who come along and see an engineer working, who just think they shouldn’t be out on the street.
“And in the very early days, there was a misunderstanding of the fact that they are key workers.
“My request to members of the public is to be aware that if our engineers are out there working – they’re doing it because they’re key workers, not because they fancy going out for a walk, to do some stuff on the network. It is vital to the country.”
He continues: “These jobs could range from anything from repairing a line for an elderly person who’s at home, to doing something essential for the current and future state of the country’s digital capability.
“We’re all trying to work this through together and to some extent we’re dealing with some of this in real time. We’ve never experienced it before, and a bit of understanding and tolerance and discussion about things is far preferable.”
Openreach saw an initial spike of 25 per cent in internet traffic when lockdown was introduced, and the latest figures show that traffic is up by 20 per cent.
So, how is the system keeping up with this demand?
Openreach’s network is built to cope with large amounts of traffic and already manages very heavy usage in the evenings when people are streaming movies or gaming. Dick says Openreach is not seeing any significant issues across its broadband and phone networks.
“Everyone has worked hard to re-orientate the business and make sure that it’s working as efficiently, as effectively as possible and as safely as it can to continue to serve the needs of Scotland and the needs of the UK,” he says. “And it’s about getting that balance right. That can be challenging, but I think we’re at a reasonably good place at the moment in doing that.”
Openreach is also doing what it can to support to the first responders to the health crisis, with the company joining others in the telecoms industry to agree a number of new commitments to support the NHS, including maintaining the network and building faster, more reliable connections to new NHS sites, care homes, clinicians and those who are vulnerable.
“Broadband can play a pivotal role in protecting the NHS and enabling crucial services to be delivered at a distance,” Dick says. “That’s one of the reasons why our engineers are still working tirelessly in communities throughout Scotland.”
Additionally, Openreach is offering support for small business.
“We’re acutely conscious that some SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] are facing real financial difficulties during this crisis,” Dick says. “Working with our communications provider customers, we’ve introduced a range of measures to complement support schemes already implemented by government.”
These include reducing or removing some cancellation and reconnection charges, protecting phone numbers if a business temporarily stops its service, and deferring payments for those suffering financial hardship.
However, the pandemic is not stopping Openreach from achieving its goals to continue to build the UK’s full fibre infrastructure, with work continuing where it can be carried out safely.
“Despite the impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic, we’re on track to reach our full fibre target of four million homes and businesses by March 2021,” Dick says.
“We’re continuing to build full fibre as this work mostly happens at a safe distance from members of the public, for example digging trenches along highways and verges. We’ve stopped a few activities, like extending the network into blocks of flats, and we’ve been working very closely with the Scottish Government and Scottish Road Works Commissioner to factor in new guidelines.”
Minister for Connectivity Paul Wheelhouse recognises the crucial work that telecoms engineers and other national infrastructure workers are undertaking, while social distancing enforcement measures are in place.
“The Scottish Government is grateful to all the workers delivering vital services due to this outbreak, including those on Scotland’s oil and gas infrastructure, electricity, gas and heat networks, our water and fuel supplies, telecoms and transport networks,” he says.