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Ofcom consults on opening up BT’s infrastructure

UK comms regulator Ofcom has set out detailed plans for improving access to BT’s network arm Openreach’s infrastructure, making it cheaper and easier for competing providers to connect their own fibre broadband directly to homes and offices.

Network competition can deliver significant benefits to consumers through choice and innovation, which can deliver higher quality and lower prices. The measures are designed to spur investment in the next generation of ultrafast Internet connections, and reduce the country’s historical reliance on Openreach – the network business within BT Group.

Ofcom says its plans will make it quicker and easier for BT’s competitors to build their own fibre networks all the way to people’s doorsteps using Openreach’s existing telegraph poles and ‘ducts’ – the small, underground tunnels that carry telecoms cables.

The main proposals, announced today, are:

  • Access on fair terms: Providers should be able to lay fibre using BT’s ducts and poles as easily as BT itself; and the cost to BT for providing this access should be spread across all users.
  • Network ‘ready for use’: Openreach must repair faulty infrastructure and clear blocked tunnels where necessary for providers to access them.
  • Mixed-use networks: Companies can lay fibre for consumers and large businesses, provided the purpose of the network is primarily to deliver broadband to homes and small offices.
  • Final connections into homes: BT should ensure capacity is available on its telegraph poles for additional fibre cables that connect buildings to a competitor’s network.
  • Better information: Openreach will continue to develop a ‘digital map’ of its duct and pole network so competitors can plan new networks.

“People increasingly need fast, reliable broadband. We’ll make it easier for companies to offer their own full-fibre broadband more cheaply by accessing Openreach’s tunnels and telegraph poles,” stated Yih-Choung Teh, Ofcom’s Competition Policy Director. “This will put other providers on a level playing field with BT, so they have the confidence to invest in their own full-fibre networks.”

Getting ready for a fibre future

According to Ofcom, the UK compares well with major European peers for the availability of broadband connections involving some form of fibre-optic cable, such as fibre running to the street cabinet. However, Ofcom remains concerned that the UK has very low coverage of full-fibre broadband, where cable and fibre lines connect directly to homes and offices.

BT’s competitors have raised concerns about the costs and time required to build these networks. To address this, Ofcom committed to lower these hurdles by improving access to Openreach’s existing infrastructure.

Reusing existing underground ducts can significantly reduce the time it takes to roll out a new network. For example, while it can take days to build 200m of duct using traditional construction methods, fibre cables could be installed in the same length of existing duct in a matter of hours.

Since Ofcom outlined initial plans in December, Openreach has made the process for accessing its ducts and poles more efficient, following a trial last year with five other telecoms companies. Other providers now carry out their own work on the infrastructure, which has helped reduce delays.

However, there is more to be done. Ofcom plans to require Openreach to ensure its existing network of ducts and poles is ‘ready for use’. This means it would have to repair faulty infrastructure and clear blocked pipes on request, within a timeframe agreed with its customers.

Ensuring a level playing field

Ofcom wants to ensure all providers can lay fibre in BT’s ducts as easily as BT itself. It intends for BT to recover related costs, such as repairing ducts, in the same way it recovers these costs for its own deployments – for example, by spreading them across all the services that make use of the duct.

If a telecoms provider wants to build its own ultrafast network for consumers, but needs additional revenue to enable the investment, Ofcom is proposing that the company should also be able to use BT’s infrastructure to provide ‘leased lines’ – dedicated, high-speed cables used by large businesses. This can help strengthen the business case for new investment.

Connecting customers

For around half of UK homes, the final connection between the customer’s home and the network is a ‘dropwire’ from a nearby telegraph pole.

Companies wishing to connect fibre directly to premises can face problems, such as insufficient space on BT’s poles, which often take time and money to resolve. Accordingly, Ofcom is proposing that BT must ensure capacity is available on its telegraph poles for additional fibre cables that connect buildings to the network.

Digital map

Ofcom has told Openreach to provide comprehensive data on its network of ducts and poles – a ‘digital map’ of the UK to allow competitors to plan and deploy their own advanced networks.

Openreach recently launched this as an online database. The new tool shows other telecoms providers the exact positon of its ducts, poles and chambers, together with an indication of available duct capacity.

While this is welcome progress, Ofcom wants Openreach to make its digital map tool easier for other providers to use.

Next steps

The proposals form part of Ofcom’s Wholesale Local Access Market Review for the period from April 2018 to March 2021. The consultation closes on June 15th 2017, and Ofcom expects to publish its final decisions in early 2018, with new rules taking effect on April 1 2018.

Ofcom is also considering changes to Openreach’s rental charges for accessing its duct network, and expects to publish specific proposals on this in the summer of 2017.

 

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