Ofcom has thrown a bit of a spanner in the works in the form of a proposal to force BT to open up its backhaul fibre network to others in the form of dark fibre, and also is acting to put in place new minimum service quality targets on Openreach over its installation of Ethernet and leased lines.
"To ensure that businesses have effective choice, and to encourage competition and innovation, Ofcom is proposing a new requirement on BT - the largest supplier in the market, upon whose network many competitors’ services rely - to supply ‘dark fibre’ in areas outside central London."
"Ofcom is concerned that Openreach often takes too long to install leased lines, and too often changes the date on which it promises to deliver services.
Since 2011, the average time between a customer’s order and the line being ready2 has increased from 40 to 46 working days. The first new quality of service rule would require Openreach to return this average to 40 working days by 2017, and maintain it thereafter. "Extracts from Ofcom statement
To make sure people get this right, this does not mean FTTP is about to be come mega cheap or easy to order, dark fibre is access to a fibre strand and rather than BT/Openreach electronics on each end you supply your own and can run it at 100 Meg or 10 Gbps for the same cost (apart from price of optics you buy yourself). What this allows for is mobile and large businesses to connect different sites and not worry about data volumes, beyond the need to upgrade from 1 Gbps to 10 Gbps etc.
Firms like Geo and CityFibre have built a business model around dark fibre in various parts of the UK, so while forcing BT to open up will create more access opportunities it might make it harder for the new entrants to undercut and also be unique. Alternatively it be viewed as being the glue that will make it easier for people like CityFibre to create a much larger fibre network linking more and more cities, with them concentrating on deploying their fully owned fibre for the links to small businesses and homes.
How the proposals will work are what the consultation period that closes on 31st July 2015 is aiming to find out, i.e. a chance for everyone to have their say. Nothing is expected to change until April 2016 with dark fibre not expected to appear until April 2017.
It will be interesting to see how the dark fibre option plays out, one can foresee a scenario where BT works to ensure there is not spare fibre available for dark use, thus requiring a more expensive install of a new bit of fibre. This is already the scenario foe the GEA roll-outs, where spare fibres are in the ground already to be used in case one fibre goes bad, or are earmarked for future expansion in the G.Fast and maybe GEA-FTTP.
For the mobile operators access to a BT dark fibre will help to ensure that the advantage BT might have had with EE being owned by them is reduced, but having met CityFibre one of their anchors was meant to be helping to serve mobile operators with fibre to the mast.
We have no data on the Ethernet/leased line problems but are willing to bet that the volume of the GEA (FTTC/fttp) roll-outs particularly in the BDUK areas has stretched Openreach resources, of course going faster is easy you just employ more people from the pool of thousands of unemployed fibre splicers and installers - alas we suspect this is a small or non-existent pool.
Literally just after hitting publish, a comment from CityFibre arrived:
"While CityFibre welcomes Ofcom’s decision as a clear validation of our business model, we urge it in the strongest possible terms to ensure that any future approach to pricing in no way distorts the market or discourages investment by independent infrastructure builders.
The task of redressing the legacy of decades of underinvestment in the UK for fibre infrastructure is too large and important to be left to solely one monopoly provider, and the role of smaller, entrepreneurial players must not be underestimated or undervalued. It is essential that a pro-investment environment, which preserves supplier diversity and encourages network competition, be established and safeguarded for decades to come.Greg Mesch, Chief Executive Officer, CityFibre
To add our own comment following on from this, we have had 30 years of Oftel/Ofcom regulating BT and all too often BT is seen as the people to go to in terms of any broadband coverage/fibre issue when perhaps a better remedy might be to do more to ensure diverse competition, rather than just serve the needs of the largest existing BT customers who just want to cut costs.