Ofcom encourages 5G growth by providing Openreach rivals more network access

24 May 2019 | Laurence Doe

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Ofcom has announced that Openreach’s telegraph poles and underground tunnels will be opened up to rival firms to encourage them to develop high-speed lines for mobile and broadband networks and invest in full fibre and 5G.

Under draft decisions announced today by Ofcom, Openreach, which maintains the UK’s main broadband network, is required to let rival companies use its telegraph poles and underground ‘ducts’ to lay fibre infrastructure as part of an extension of rules set by the regulator last year.

Until now, this measure has only been available to companies focusing on residential and small-business customers.

It can cut the upfront cost of building full-fibre networks, a form of ultrafast broadband that uses fibre cables all the way from the exchange to people’s homes, by around half.

Today’s draft decision, which follows Ofcom’s reviews of the physical infrastructure and business connectivity markets, would extend the infrastructure to firms serving large businesses, as well as companies laying high-speed lines that support mobile and broadband networks.

The new regulations will cover the period from Ofcom’s final decisions until April 2021, and will be implemented one month after the regulator’s final statement.

Dark fibre, a term used for cables that are ‘lit’ by competitors with their own equipment access, will be provided from six weeks after Ofcom’s final statement.

A statement sent to Capacity from Openreach, which is a division of telecommunications company BT, said: "Last year we delivered our best ever service performance, but we want to keep improving and we share Ofcom’s desire to improve service across the industry.

“Our ducts and poles have been open to other companies since 2011, and we recognise that unrestricted access is a natural next step so we had volunteered to get on with that, ahead of Ofcom’s original schedule.

“We welcome the greater clarity around Dark Fibre and the timeframe needed to deliver a fully functional product to market.

“We’ll consider the range of proposals carefully, and we’ll continue to work with Ofcom on developing an environment that encourages greater investment.”

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.

Between them, competing providers are using around 12,000 Openreach telegraph poles and 2,500 kilometres of underground duct.

Openreach also has its own plans to directly connect fibre to 15 million UK buildings by the mid-2020s.

“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,” stated Ofcom in a public announcement.

“We would also impose strict requirements on Openreach for repairs and installations, to ensure high service standards are delivered.”

Extending access to business networks will allow companies to use Openreach’s infrastructure for all telecoms services and open up more possibilities for improving connections to the other half of homes in the UK that are without ultra-fast broadband, which offers download speeds of at least 300 Mbit/s.

According to Ofcom’s Spring 2019 Connected Nations update, full fibre is now available to 7% of UK properties. 

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.

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.”

The UK's first 5G services were introduced on May 22 when EE launched its new services, which can achieve speeds of around 100-150 Mbp, in six cities.