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BT must install broadband faster and give rivals access to cables – Ofcom

Friday, May 15th 2015 by Ellen Branagh

Telecoms giant BT could be forced to give rivals access to some of its fibre infrastructure and install cables faster under new proposals by Ofcom.

Under the proposals, announced by the telecoms regulator today, companies that want to provide high-speed lines for businesses could be given access to BT’s ‘dark fibre’ – fibre cables already in the ground but not yet connected to carry traffic.

The measures are part of Ofcom’s Business Connectivity Market Review (BCMR), which looks at competition in the £2bn market for 'leased lines', the dedicated lines used by businesses and mobile and broadband operators, as well as by schools, universities, libraries and other public bodies.

The review also includes proposals to impose new requirements for the installation of high-speed business lines, to speed up installation processes.

Ofcom said take-up of leased lines is growing as consumers use more data on smartphones, tablets and connected TVs, and companies move information around.

To encourage competition, the telecoms watchdog has proposed placing a new requirement on BT to supply ‘dark fibre’ in areas outside central London.

BT already sells ‘wholesale leased line products’, which include the fibre cable and its own network equipment, at regulated prices to competitors.

'Lines are invisible'

The plans mean BT would have to give its competitors physical access to its fibre-optic cables, meaning they could effectively be ‘lit’ by competitors themselves, installing their own equipment at either end of the cable.

In the review, Ofcom is also proposing to put new requirements on Openreach, which installs and maintains connections to BT’s infrastructure, for its leased lines market, amid concerns that it takes too long and often changes delivery dates.

It said that since 2011, the average time between a customer’s order and the line being ready has increased from 40 to 46 working days.

Ofcom’s planned new rule would require Openreach to return to the average of 40 working days by 2017.

Jonathan Oxley, Ofcom competition group director, said: “High-speed, fibre optic leased lines are invisible to most people.

“But they form a critical building block in the UK’s infrastructure that underpins people’s personal and working lives.

'Dark fibre'

“Today’s proposals should help businesses across the UK who rely on high-speed data lines."

Ofcom’s proposals are now subject to consultation, closing on 31 July, with final decisions expected to be published in the first quarter of 2016, taking effect in April 2016.

The plans were welcomed by infrastructure provider CityFibre.

CEO Greg Mesch said: “Dark fibre has been validated worldwide as the only infrastructure platform to deliver cost-effective, future-proof digital connectivity fit for purpose in the decades to come.”

He said CityFibre has long championed making dark fibre widely available in the UK and has a proven track record of “investing innovating and competing” in the provision of fibre infrastructure.

Asked recently about whether Openreach would give other companies more access to its infrastructure, CEO Joe Garner, said: "I think there is a real risk with dark fibre that it would unlevel what is a very level playing field today."

He said while some larger providers might like the idea of dark fibre, it may not be beneficial to the other 500-odd providers with fewer capabilities, adding: "Would it not play in favour of the big guys at the expense of the smaller players?"

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