Ofcom unveils detailed plan to share BT’s ducts and poles for broadband

UK regulator Ofcom is preparing to open up British Telecom’s ducts and poles so that rival broadband suppliers can lay fiber cheaply. It has a proposal out for feedback from the community

It is by no means certain that BT’s broadband rivals will actually use this as a basis for initiating their own fiber networks nationwide, but they are almost certain to support the move on a “just in case” basis . Small local fiber providers need this kind of access, and companies like Vodafone may choose to lay fiber to support both its own network and small cell backhaul.

Something similar happened in France years ago, and it has created a healthy competitive market for telecommunications services with consumer pricing continuing to spiral down and operators still able to return profits to shareholders, but who can only do so by innovating.

Interestingly, this is the antithesis of what has gone on in the US, where courts have struck down the intervention of CLECs using AT&T’s and Verizon’s pipes, because the regulator had its power diluted by a pro-business, rather than pro-consumer stance. AT&T is therefore more profitable, but the company is slow, losing the broadband battle, and weaker against cable competitors in the long run.

The idea is that BT’s OpenReach will be asked to give equal priced access to its underground tunnels, and the telegraph poles which increasingly carry fiber to within distances from the home, for higher speed broadband.

BT will argue or course that it has spent the money building such tunnels, digging holes and sourcing poles, and so it should have exclusive use of them. The counter argument is that it has privileged access to planning regulations and civil permissions which meant it can pretty much dig where it wants, and as such has monopoly control. As broadband goes closer and closer to the home, fiber needs to get within 70 feet or so of each home, or travel all the way to the door. The only way to do this without having 5 times as many ducts, at fives time the investment, is to share existing underground tunnels. It would also make the streets look a mess, and make broadband investment unattractive. In fact forcing access to these facilities gets BT more return on its original structural  investments because more lines will use it.

Fiber is usually laid with multiple spare ducts, so you can “shoot” through more fiber when it is needed. This is a future proof precaution, when digging up roads. Ofcom is proposing that for a regulated fee, this spare capacity can be rented by other providers to allow a choice of underlying networks.

Ofcom this week set out detailed plans for improving access to this infrastructure, making it cheaper and easier for competing providers to connect their own fiber broadband directly to homes and offices.

The main points of the proposals are that access is made on fair terms, which means at the same price that OpenReach charges itself internally; Ofcom wants all costs to be shared across all providers, equally on a line by line basis.

Openreach will also have to repair faulty infrastructure and clear blocked tunnels where necessary for providers to access them and BT should ensure capacity is available on its telegraph poles for additional fiber and develop a ‘digital map’ of its network0 which competitors can use to plan new networks.

Ofcom initially outlined these plans in December and since then BT 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.

These proposals form part of Ofcom’s Wholesale Local Access Market Review for the period from 2018 to March and the consultation closes om June 2017, and Ofcom expects to publish its final decisions in early 2018.

Despite the UK expecting to leave the EU, Ofcom is still regarded as one of the most advanced regulators in Europe, and any lessons learned from running OpenReach almost as a company separate from BT, and from this consultation, are almost certain to create ripples around Europe.