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Ofcom opens up Openreach for full-fibre commitment

Telcos will have greater access to Openreach infrastructure in a bid to accelerate ultrafast broadband to millions more properties

Openreach telecoms maintenance

Ofcom has announced new rules that will grant telecoms companies greater access to Openreach's infrastructure to support full-fibre rollout and investment.

Companies that service residential and small business customers already have access to Openreach's infrastructure such as telegraph poles and underground tunnels, but now the access has been extended to firms that cater to large businesses too.

Allowing companies to use existing infrastructure to build full-fibre networks can cut the upfront costs by up to half, according to Ofcom. The telecoms watchdog also said that reducing costs and extending access to business networks will improve the business case to invest in full-fibre and 5G networks.

"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," said an Openreach spokesperson.

Full-fibre broadband is an ultrafast form of broadband which is categorised as a connection that delivers speeds of at least 300Mbit/s and it's currently available in just 7% of UK properties. The number of full-fibre lines more than doubled last year but the new rules would see the coverage extended to millions of properties in the coming months.

"This is a huge boost for fibre broadband rollout and will appease most stakeholders," said telecoms analyst Paolo Pescatore. "Fibre represents a key foundation for the future digital infrastructure in the UK. More so with the arrival of 5G which will require a bigger pipe in the backhaul to deal with an explosion in data traffic."

To accompany the access to infrastructure, Ofcom is also refreshing its regulation of leased lines to encourage greater competition in areas of the country which are serviced by one or a small number of telecoms providers.

Ofcom also wants to increase competition in BT's exchanges where rival network providers are rarely present, even with telegraph pole and tunnel access. To combat this, Openreach will still be required to lease its fibre to rival providers in BT's exchanges at a price that reflects its cost.

The service is called dark fibre which involves rival suppliers activating Openreach's fibre using their own equipment and doing so, according to Openreach "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". 

"The amount of internet data used by people in the UK is expanding by around half every year," said Jonathan Oxley, Ofcom's competition group director. "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."

Vodafone has a less optimistic view of Ofcom's dark fibre initiative. "We support competition, but Ofcom's proposals to grant access to dark fibre only on the fringes while loosening its price controls on BT Openreach will mean businesses and the public sector paying more to meet their connectivity needs," said a Vodafone spokesperson.

"There is an alternative," the spokesperson added. "Providing universal access to dark fibre now would give the UK the connectivity it needs, at a price everyone can afford. Sadly this is another opportunity Ofcom has missed to plug the full fibre hole in the UK."

Ofcom's work this year has largely been focussed on the consumer sector. Last month the watchdog introduced new rules for broadband customers which compelled providers to inform them of their best deals and imposed a mandatory notice period for telling customers about expiring contracts.

More than 20 million UK customers were found to have passed their initial contract period which meant that they could have been paying more than they needed to on a non-prime deal.

Earlier in the year, Ofcom also imposed a minimum speed rule for providers - if customers aren't getting the speeds they were promised they can back out of their contracts without having to pay a penalty fee.

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