Page last updated at 00:36 GMT, Sunday, 14 September 2008 01:36 UK

BT chief in social call to rivals

By Jamie McIvor
BBC Scotland business reporter

Ian Livingston has been BT chief executive since June
Ian Livingston has been BT chief executive since June

The chief executive of BT has said all major telecommunications companies should share responsibility for helping poorer and vulnerable customers.

Ian Livingston said they should also improve services in outlying areas.

The 44-year-old, who took over BT in June, said rival companies such as Vodafone, BSkyB and Carphone Warehouse had a responsibility for social policy.

He told The Business programme on BBC Radio Scotland the burden should not always fall on BT.

Mr Livingston said: "BT is the only company that provides reduced line rental for people who are on benefits.

"BT does a number of things in providing for disabled people. We're very happy to do a lot of these things but I think we feel the total burden shouldn't just lie with BT.

"Today, if you include mobile companies, BT accounts for less than a third of all phone revenue in the UK so the companies with two thirds actually should be contributing and whether that's better mobile signals or just saying actually you've got a responsibility for social policy and not just BT."

Campaigners' wrath

Mr Livingston suggested major communications companies could agree on an appropriate level of social protection with the government or the communications regulator Ofcom - and then make a contribution towards achieving this.

Mr Livingston took over as chief executive of BT Group three months ago.

Some of BT's current obligations - such as providing rural phone boxes - date back to the company's historic monopoly.

BT wants to scrap 9,000 of its 62,000 payphones, claiming that nearly two thirds are unprofitable.

But it often faces the wrath of campaigners whenever an individual box, even one which is rarely used, comes under threat.

The company recently announced plans to allow councils to "adopt" uneconomic phone boxes which they wanted saved. They could either be saved as local landmarks - without working phones - or as call boxes.

Speaking in his office overlooking St Paul's Cathedral in London, Mr Livingston said: "We said we will keep phone boxes when there's a clear social need. A lot of councils said: 'Well actually there's not a social need in terms of the fact people might use them.... But we like the old phone box and it's part of the village scenery'.

"So we said: 'ok we'll let you as a council take over the phone . Just you maintain it and we'll take the phone out and you've still got the phone box at the corner where you give people directions'."

He added: "The other option is we say to a council, it costs close to 1,000 a year to maintain this phone box. If you pay 500, BT will pay the rest and we'll keep it."

He said that was a way of ensuring uneconomic phone boxes, which communities still believe are important, can remain in place.

"BT is a public company not a company which is still nationalised," he said.

"We have to compete in the market and we can't afford to be losing 1,000 on every phone box we have."

Superior services

Mr Livingston was asked if he thought those who want phone boxes saved because they might be needed in emergencies were sometimes barking up the wrong tree - and should campaign for better mobile coverage instead.

He replied: "I think that's certainly true."

BT is very proud of its work making broadband internet access available in many outlying parts of Scotland.

Some observers note that there are areas of the Highlands and Islands which have broadband but no mains gas or reliable terrestrial television or FM radio reception.

BT recently announced plans for "superfast broadband" which could offer far speedier and superior services.

But Mr Livingston concedes that some outlying parts of the country may never see improved broadband services unless bodies such as the Scottish Government or local authorities foot some of the cost.

"I think that may well be the case," he said. We will continue to work with local authorities, regional development agencies and the government as we did with the original roll-out of broadband."

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