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Ofcom: business connections can share BT’s ducts and poles

Ofcom has set out detailed plans for improving access to BT’s infrastructure, which include allowing fibre used for business broadband connections, known as leased lines, to share the incumbent’s underground ducts and telegraph poles.

The measures are designed to spur competition and investment in broadband networks, and reduce the UK’s historical reliance on Openreach, the access network business within BT Group.

“We’ll make it easier for companies to offer their own full-fibre broadband more cheaply by accessing Openreach’s tunnels and telegraph poles,” said 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.”

Ofcom highlights how reusing existing 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. Making it easier for BT’s rivals to access its ducts and poles should spur investment and competition in access networks, the regulator declares.

The recommendations follow Ofcom’s Digital Communications Review last year, in which the regulator asked BT to provide “greatly improved systems and processes for sharing its ducts and poles”. BT responded by allowing other providers to carry out their own work on duct and poles, which has helped reduce delays (see Openreach trials simplified duct and pole sharing process).

However, Ofcom thinks these measures don’t go far enough. It remains concerned about the UK’s low coverage of full-fibre broadband, which is among the lowest in Europe (see Full speed ahead for FTTH as subscribers pass 44 million).

To address this, Ofcom committed to make it easier for fibre providers to roll out new networks by improving access to Openreach infrastructure.

One of the major shortcomings of BT’s Physical Infrastructure Access (PIA) product, as access to ducts and poles is called, is that was initially designed to support residential broadband access, which excluded business connections. Ofcom is now proposing that other telecom providers should be able to use BT’s infrastructure to provide leased lines – dedicated, high-speed connections used by businesses. This can help strengthen the business case for new investment.

“Our provisional view is that it is appropriate to relax the current PIA usage restriction to allow ‘mixed usage’,” the regulator said. “Our aim is to allow PIA to be used to deploy local access networks offering both broadband and non-broadband services, provided the purpose of the network deployment is primarily the delivery of broadband services to homes and businesses, where the inclusion of non-broadband services enables the investment. This will support the effectiveness of the PIA remedy in the WLA market.”

Other measures include requiring BT to ensure its existing network of ducts and poles is ‘ready for use’. This means Openreach would have to repair faulty infrastructure and clear blocked pipes on request, within a timeframe agreed with its customers. BT will also be expected to ensure capacity is available on its telegraph poles for providers to install additional fibre cables connecting buildings to the network.

Ofcom also wants to ensure all telecom providers using ducts and poles are treated equally where possible. This means BT must recover the 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.

Finally, Ofcom want Openreach to make the digital map of its duct and pole network – which shows the exact positon of its ducts, poles and chambers, together with an indication of available duct capacity – easier for other telecom providers to use. They should be able to download the data and integrate it with their own mapping tools.

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

The regulator is also considering capping Openreach’s rental charges for accessing its duct network, and expects to publish specific proposals on this in the summer.

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