Katie Milligan: broadband now means something to everyone (pic: Terry Murden)
The telecoms executive talks to TERRY MURDEN about competition, growth and what comes next for the sector
For those running any sort of utilities business, and no matter how often they get it right, there are always plenty of critics waiting to pounce whenever something goes wrong. That goes for telecoms as much as it does for water, electricity and gas. Openreach executive Katie Milligan says the criticisms and expectations from consumers are a measure of how much we have all come to regard telecoms as a vital public service.
It’s what she calls the “unseen impact” of better broadband which is all around us and now underpins every aspect of our work and relaxation. As a key driver of the economy and home entertainment it has created huge demands on the sector to continue improving and expanding.
“Covid was a turning point for the telecoms industry,” she says. “People realised the benefits that it gave them while they were stuck at home. It enabled them to work and be entertained as well as remain in touch with family and friends. Broadband suddenly meant something to everyone.”
She says it led to customers adopting new products and upgrading their current service, as well as using what they had in different ways.
“The growth is phenomenal and it will just keep growing,” she says. “Households currently consume more than 100 million gigabytes of data every single week.”
That’s the equivalent of every household in Scotland streaming a high definition film ten times over that period, though that figure will be dwarfed in just a few years time, and is driving the whole sector to innovate and accelerate its plans.
Milligan is the company’s chief commercial officer, reporting to chief executive Clive Selley, and heads up the company’s operations north of the border as chair of the Scotland board. She’s been tipped by her peers for higher things and certainly believes in wasting no time ticking off her to-do list.
“When I go into something I want to get ahead,” she says, admitting she is competitive and determined to succeed.
We meet in the Glasgow head office of BT Scotland where Openreach has 600 employees occupying a floor where even BT staff need a pass to enter, a physical reminder of their distinct identities in the group.
Milligan is wearing comfortable flat white trainer-style shoes, in keeping with a policy of making office life less regimented. Those who know her well will vouch for the ever-present can of Irn-Bru placed on the coffee table in front of her.
“I am probably the biggest consumer of Irn-Bru,” she says, giggling. How many cans a day? “Too many,” she says. “I am always drinking it.”
Still in her early forties, her list of achievements so far has included overseeing the design and delivery of superfast fibre products, installing full fibre to the millionth property in Scotland – announced this week – and introducing a new pricing structure – Equinox 2 – which has been welcomed by customers but has been controversial with her rival infrastructure companies, known as altnets, or alternative networks.
Big customers such as BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Vodafone are among those using the Openreach network and the discount prompted accusations from the altnets, such as CityFibre, that it gave the old monopoly – BT and Openreach – an unfair advantage. Industry observers have warned that any damage to the smaller providers risks slowing down the UK-wide building programme.
Milligan says: “We did what our customers wanted us to do.” She insists that the price cuts were approved by the regulator Ofcom.
“There is nothing stopping anyone going to other altnets. The monopoly argument has not been upheld.”
Is there a level playing field? “Yes,” she says. The debate has spilled over into talk of consolidation in the sector.
“We saw it with cable. It is inevitable there will be consolidation,” she says, though her boss has stated that Openreach will not be part of it.
Openreach is facing some enormous challenges (pic: Terry Murden)
Milligan’s rise through the ranks, first at BT and then at its Openreach subsidiary, owes nothing to her background. “I was quiet in school, stubborn but not rebellious,” she says, adding that she had an instinct for being prepared for whatever opportunities came along. She studied business at Strathclyde University but also a number of strands of the law. “It came in useful later in my career when I was involved in complex negotiations,” she says.
She had no designs on the telecoms sector but she did know that she wanted to move to London and when a classmate drew her attention to a job with BT in the capital, Milligan thought it sounded like just the role she was seeking. That was in 2004. She got taken on and has been with the business ever since. Her switch to Openreach, BT’s infrastructure business, was another opportunity she was eager to grab.
“It’s the perfect combination of big business, innovation and providing a service that means something to a lot of people,” she says.
“One of the things I got told early in my career was to follow the investment, and this part of the business was getting billions of pounds that would transform people’s lives.”
Now with a UK-wide remit, she works one day a month from from Alexander Bain House in Glasgow where she is overseeing the uniquely Scottish factors in a civil engineering programme only second in scale to HS2.
Openreach has a target of delivering full fibre to to 25 million UK homes by the end of 2026 and Scotland tests the ingenuity of the company’s engineers. That’s because it involves a lot of private land ownership and very large open spaces, mountains, islands and glens which has meant developing and deploying new technologies such as drones and low earth orbiting satellites as well as requiring fibre to be extended to three times their normal reach.
Milligan gets a special delight in seeing those links finally established and how they make such a difference to people’s lives.
“We have seen customers crying with joy when they’ve finally got the link they’ve been waiting for and that gives me a lot of satisfaction,” she says.
The latest moves include an end to worn out copper wire – also just announced – and driving the transition from analogue to digital through the Digital Voice programme which comes to Scotland next year.
There is also a push on ensuring advances in telecommunications are embraced across government policy and industrial practice.
“Only two or three years ago copper wire was still being installed in new houses,” says Milligan.
“We have made great strides in ensuring full fibre is installed into new buildings, including homes. It is something customers now expect like water and electricity.”
She says customers often confuse wi-fi services and broadband and don’t really understand how it all all works and connects. It has become a topic of conversation when people ask her what she does and finds herself explaining the differences.
“Do people know who we are and what we do?” she asks. “They just need to know about us when they need us.”
Occupation: Chief commercial officer of Openreach, chair of Openreach Scotland board and member of Openreach executive team
Birthplace: Glasgow Southern Hospital, but raised in Ardrossan, Ayrshire
Education: Strathclyde Business School
Career highlights: Joined BT from university and held a number of roles including commercial director of TV services and later Openreach
Residence: Lives in Woodford Green, London, with property fund manager husband and 20-month-old daughter.
How did becoming a mother change you?
I talk about it publicly. I left it late to have a baby as I didn’t think I could be a mother alongside my career. My mother gave up her career to have children. But I am grateful to be in an environment when you can have both. It has given me an extra reason to be home and relaxing and switched off from work. In that way it has massively changed the way I work and how I see the need for flexibility across the workplace.
Do you feel any other pressures to prove yourself?
No. I was not brought up thinking there were limitations to being female. I was quiet in school but I discovered my voice when I hit the corporate world.
What other interests do you have?
I can’t cook, but I do like to shop (a lot).
Who would you invite to a fantasy dinner party?
Adele. I also sing and had lessons. I sang in a choir so I’d like to sing with Adele.
Billy Connolly… to bring some humour
Gordon Ramsay… to do the cooking