Further Ofcom rules to support fibre investment

24 May 2019 09:50 AM

Companies laying high-speed fibre cables for broadband and mobile networks will benefit from greater access to Openreach's telegraph poles and underground tunnels, under draft decisions announced today by Ofcom.

Openreach, which maintains the UK’s main broadband network, is already required to let rival companies use its telegraph poles and underground ‘ducts’ to lay their own fibre networks, under rules set by Ofcom last year.

Until now, this measure – which can cut the upfront cost of building full-fibre networks by around half – has been available to companies focusing on residential and small-business customers. Today’s draft decision would extend it to firms serving large businesses, as well as companies laying high-speed lines that support mobile and broadband networks.

Virgin Media, TalkTalk and CityFibre are among the firms already using Openreach’s ducts and poles to connect thousands of homes and businesses to faster, more reliable broadband.[1] Between them, competing providers are using around 12,000 Openreach telegraph poles and 2,500 km of underground duct.

Extending access to business networks would allow companies to use Openreach’s infrastructure for all telecoms services, improving the business case for them to invest in cutting edge, full fibre and 5G networks.

Ultrafast broadband, which offers download speeds of at least 300 Mbit/s, is now available to more than half of homes in the UK. Full fibre, a form of ultrafast broadband that uses fibre cables all the way from the exchange to people’s homes, is now available to 7% of UK properties.[2] And while the number of full-fibre lines more than doubled last year, Ofcom wants to see coverage extended to millions of properties in the coming months.

Supporting competition and investment certainty in business markets

Today, we are also refreshing our regulation of 'leased lines' – high-speed data connections used by large organisations, which form the backbone of the UK’s mobile and broadband networks.

Under our draft decision, in areas of the country where Openreach faces limited competition from other leased-line networks, we would continue to regulate what it can charge providers to use these services, keeping prices flat. We would also impose strict requirements on Openreach for repairs and installations, to ensure high service standards are delivered.

Also, in many areas, there are no rival networks present at BT’s exchanges. Even with duct and pole access, network competition is unlikely to emerge for connections from these exchanges. Here, Openreach would be required to give competitors physical access to its fibre-optic cables, at a price that reflects its costs.

This service is called ‘dark fibre’, because the cables are ‘lit’ by competitors with their own equipment. Introducing dark fibre in only these areas would significantly reduce the cost for mobile and broadband operators to connect their networks, without undermining their incentives to lay new, competing fibre cables where it is economic to do so.

Where there is stronger network competition, or prospective competition, regulation would be lighter than existing rules, to allow this competition to flourish.

Jonathan Oxley, Ofcom’s Competition Group Director, said: “The amount of internet data used by people in the UK is expanding by around half every year. So, we’ll need faster, more reliable connections for our homes, offices and mobile networks.

“Our measures are designed to support the UK’s digital future by providing investment certainty for continued competitive investment in fibre and 5G networks across the country.”

Supporting widespread fibre investment

Today’s measures are the latest in Ofcom’s programme of work to support long-term investment nationwide in full-fibre networks.

We recently set out initial views on how our regulation could evolve to encourage competition and further investment from new alternative networks, Openreach and Virgin Media. In addition to today’s measures, this long-term strategy includes:

Next steps

Today’s draft decisions follow Ofcom’s reviews of the physical infrastructure and business connectivity markets. The new regulations will cover the period from our final decisions, until April 2021.[3]

As required for all market reviews, our draft decisions have been submitted to the European Commission for comment, after which we will publish our final statement next month.[4]

We intend to consult in December on detailed proposals for a single, holistic residential and business telecoms market review, covering the period 2021 to 2026.

NOTES TO EDITORS

1. For example, Virgin Media alone recently connected more than 2,000 homes and businesses in a village in Wales using Ofcom’s duct access rules.

2. Source: Ofcom’s Spring 2019 Connected Nations update.

3. The new, unrestricted duct and pole access will be implemented one month after our final statement. Dark fibre access will have to be provided from six weeks after our final statement.

4. Under Article 7 of the Framework Directive we are required, following completion of the domestic consultation process, to notify the European Commission, BEREC, and other national regulatory authorities, of our draft decisions. There is a one-month period for these organisations to provide their comments to us.