Ofcom is bringing some new acronyms into the UK broadband lexicon today, VULA - Virtual Unbundled Local Access and PIA - Physical Infrastructure Access. These terms arise from a review of the wholesale local access market and are an attempt to improve the level of competition in Next Generation Broadband, which generally means more options for consumers at lower prices, which will then drive take-up and hopefully push roll-out beyond the projected two-thirds coverage.
The two players that are targeted by this latest review are BT across the UK and KCOM in the Hull area. Virgin Media, while it has a Next Generation network serving almost 50% of UK premises, is not considered to have SMP in this area due to its take-up levels, therefore giving BT a market share of 84%. Those who are calling for wholesale access to the Virgin Media network will thus see a long wait before Ofcom force them to open it up. Some may also be disappointed to see that the PIA product is limited to only requiring BT to open up their poles and ducts, although Ofcom may look at extending this in the future. In some cases it could be prudent to allow access to those belonging to other network operators as these could allow easier and cheaper next-generation deployments.
If you've been involved in broadband since the start of the 21st Century, you will recall similar reviews in 2002 and 2003 that lead to the creation of full and shared local loop unbundling. This change allowed a move away from the limited availability in 2004, with some operators (TalkTalk) able to offer 'free' broadband in 2006, leading to a sea change in UK broadband, with TalkTalk now available to some 85% of UK households.
The existing option of sub-loop unbundling that has been used by Rutland Telecom to provide FTTC in some areas will continue, but the PIA method may help to further reduce costs, making it easier for them to deploy to more areas. Additionally it would appear that in the near future Openreach will be trialling a FTTC product that is installed by the broadband provider, and hardware that is not Openreach branded. This may seem a small thing, but for many firms, they prefer the consumer to see no mention of BT or any of its groups when customers are dealing with them.
BT is in the process of defining its VULA-based product, which will then be looked at by Ofcom to ensure it is fully compliant, though it seems further industry discussion is still required to fully specify what these requirements are. For new build fibre deployments, there will be more news from Ofcom who will issue an updated set of guidance.
In summary, no firm deadlines or pricing, but it does bring the hope that we may see some of the price and product competition that has given the UK such a high broadband take-up. Critics will point out that this competition has led us to have highly confusing products, where phrases like 'fair use policy' can hide a myriad of policies, with 'unlimited' sometimes meaning 40GB in a month with one provider but with others it could mean 1000GB a month.
What is clear though is that while there is a demand for speed, if this means a large price rise (in the region of £10 to £20) many consumers will not be prepared to pay and would rather continue to moan and nag about an existing product. If this review results in the premium for Next Generation Broadband decreasing, without reducing the product to the performance level of first generation broadband then it is to be welcomed.