Ofcom opens up Openreach infrastructure

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Companies laying high-speed fibre cables used by large businesses, mobile operators and broadband providers will have greater access to broadband infrastructure provider Openreach’s ducts and poles, under proposals set out by communications regulator Ofcom.

The plans are published alongside a consultation on Ofcom’s Business Connectivity Market Review (BCMR), which looks at competition for dedicated, high-speed ‘leased lines’.

In July 2018, Ofcom set out long-term plans to support investment in fibre networks. This included introducing unrestricted access to Openreach’s underground ducts and telegraph poles in 2019.

Under Ofcom rules, Openreach, which maintains the UK’s main broadband network, is required to let competing providers use its telegraph poles and underground ducts to lay their own fibre cables. This measure can cut the upfront cost of building full-fibre networks by around half, though it is currently restricted to companies offering primarily residential broadband services.

Ofcom wants to give companies greater flexibility to lay fibre networks that serve residential or business customers. Ofcom is therefore consulting on proposals to allow access to Openreach’s ducts and poles to companies offering any type of telecoms services including high-speed lines for large businesses, networks carrying data for mobile operators and high capacity lines supporting broadband services. Ofcom intend to implement this unrestricted duct access from spring 2019.

The BCMR looks at ‘leased lines’ – high-speed, high-quality, point-to-point data connections that telecoms providers use for connecting offices, mobile base stations, and broadband access networks. These lines also provide vital, high-capacity links for hospitals, schools and libraries. Ofcom’s current regulation in this market expires in March 2019; so the watchdog is refreshing it, before moving to regulating the business and residential markets through a single review from 2021.

In geographic areas where the prospects for competition are low, Ofcom is proposing to maintain charge controls on BT, keeping prices flat, as well as imposing strict quality of service standards. Where there is stronger competition, or prospective competition, Ofcom proposes lighter regulation than existing rules, to allow this to flourish.

In some areas, even with duct and pole access, there is unlikely to be effective competition in the foreseeable future. So for connections from exchanges where BT faces no competition from rival operators, Ofcom is proposing that BT must give competitors physical access to its fibre-optic cables, allowing them to take direct control of the connection. This service is often referred to as ‘dark fibre’, because the cables would not be ‘lit’ using BT’s electronic equipment. Instead, they would be ‘lit’ by the competitor installing its own equipment at either end of the optical fibre. Ofcom propose that BT should provide this dark fibre access at a price that reflects its costs.

Both consultations will close on January 18th 2019, and Ofcom intend to publish its final conclusions in spring 2019.

Ofcom will also consult shortly on how it should define geographic areas as either competitive, potentially competitive or non-competitive in our single, holistic residential and business market review in 2021.

Responding to the Consultation, an Openreach spokesperson said: “Our ducts and poles have been open since 2011 and we’ve launched a number of improvements to make them easier to use, with more due in April. We also support the move to unrestricted access under conditions which continue to encourage investment.”

“We share Ofcom’s desire to constantly improve service performance and, having recently delivered our best ever levels of service, we’re committed to continuing that.”

“We’ll consider the range of proposals in both consultations carefully, whilst continuing to work with Ofcom on developing an effective model that encourages investment.”


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