Ofcom reveals infrastructure sharing proposals

Companies will be able to build ultrafast, ‘full-fibre’ broadband networks more cheaply and easily, using infrastructure owned by incumbent telco BT, under initial plans set out by UK comms regulator Ofcom.

In July 2016, Ofcom detailed a new strategy to promote large-scale roll-out of ultrafast broadband, based on cable and fibre lines that go all the way to people’s doorsteps. This would provide an alternative to the mostly copper-based technologies currently being planned by BT, and deliver benefits to people and businesses in terms of choice, innovation and affordable prices.

Ofcom believes network competition is the most effective spur for continued investment in high quality, fibre networks. This will also reduce the country’s reliance on Openreach, the network division of BT.

Ofcom plans to make it quicker and easier for rival providers to build their own fibre networks direct to homes and offices using BT’s existing telegraph poles and ‘ducts’ – the small, underground tunnels that carry telecoms cables. This would give BT’s competitors the flexibility to innovate as technology evolves, and respond to changes in their customers’ needs.

Ofcom is now consulting on how these plans might be achieved.

Yih-Choung Teh, Ofcom Competition Policy Director, said: “Fibre is the future for broadband, and Ofcom is helping to deliver that through competition between networks.”

“Today we’re explaining how access to BT’s tunnels and poles could be improved, allowing other providers to connect ultrafast, fibre broadband directly to UK homes and offices. Our plans will give providers increased confidence to invest in their own full-fibre networks at reduced cost.”

Other countries have seen duct and pole access used to extend fibre to people’s doorsteps. In Spain and Portugal, the resulting competition has helped deliver full-fibre broadband coverage of 79 per cent and 70 per cent respectively. This compares to around 2 per cent currently in the UK.

Fair terms for competitors

Ofcom is keen to ensure that all providers can lay fibre in BT’s ducts as easily as BT itself. So Ofcom is proposing improvements to the process so that rivals are not disadvantaged when using BT’s infrastructure to deploy ultrafast broadband services.

The proposals include changes that mean BT would recover the costs of providing third-party access, such as repairing ducts, in the same way it recovers these costs for its own deployments – for example, by spreading them across all services that make use of the duct.

Ofcom is also considering changes to Openreach’s rental charges for accessing its duct network. These rental charges are currently linked to Openreach’s costs; but an explicit cap on prices could provide greater planning certainty for providers in future.

Faster access

Ofcom is today proposing reforms that would require BT to streamline the process of conducting site surveys for its competitors, which are unnecessarily onerous, bringing them in line with Openreach’s own survey requirements.

Where a competitor relies on Openreach to carry out engineering work, it should know when this will be completed. Ofcom is considering a requirement for service-level agreements and guarantees. Alternatively, allowing competitors to undertake the engineering work themselves could provide them with greater certainty and reduce timescales and costs.

Connecting fibre to buildings

For around half of UK homes, the final connection between the customer’s home and the network is a ‘drop wire’ from a nearby telegraph pole. (The other half of homes are connected by an underground cable.)

Companies wishing to connect fibre directly to premises can face problems such as space and load constraints on BT’s poles, which often take time and money to resolve. In contrast, these issues do not affect BT to the same extent – for example, BT can connect premises simply by replacing its existing copper drop wire with fibre.

So Ofcom is consulting on whether to require Openreach to upgrade its drop wires with fibre at the request of any telecoms provider who is offering full-fibre broadband to a customer. Openreach could then charge the provider for using the drop wire.

Digital map

Ofcom also wants to see Openreach provide comprehensive data on the nature and location of its ducts and poles. This new ‘digital map’ of the UK will allow competing operators to plan and deploy advanced networks.

BT is now developing an online database, showing the location and capacity of ducts and poles, and intends to make it available to telecoms providers by summer next year. Ofcom expects that the detailed network records will be provided in an appropriate format to BT’s rivals.

BT is also already trialling new, simpler processes for sharing its network, working with five other telecoms companies. While Ofcom welcomes this progress, more needs to be done to improve network competition and enable greater fibre roll-out.

A fibre future for the UK

Ofcom’s priority is for everyone to have good broadband. While the UK compares well with major European peers for access to superfast broadband, which offers speeds of 30 Mbit/s or more, many homes and small businesses still can’t receive a decent connection. So Ofcom is working with the Government on plans to give everyone the right to request a 10 Mbit/s service by 2020.

Looking further ahead, Ofcom wants full-fibre, ultrafast broadband to be widely available in the UK. Some operators’ plans are already underway.

BT intends to connect 2 million premises in this way by 2020, and Virgin Media plans to extend its ultrafast cable and fibre network to reach a further 4 million premises. Other providers such as TalkTalk, CityFibre and KCOM are also expanding current trials or deployment of full-fibre broadband.

However, competitors to BT have expressed concerns about the costs and time required to build these networks. According to Ofcom, the new plans are designed to reduce these hurdles significantly, encouraging a new era of network competition in the UK.

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