Broadband News

Unrestricted access to Openreach ducts and poles under Ofcom spotlight

The Physical Infrastructure Access (PIA) process has been around for some years and in simple terms it means other telecoms operators can rent space in Openreach ducts and span their own network between poles. A lot of the use to date has been tactical to cross roads or other areas where an operator installing its own ducting would be uneconomic but has also been restricted in that it could not be used for offering full business grade services.

The latest Ofcom consultation is seeking input on changing all this and making PIA even more unrestricted so that PIA can be used for point to point communications and also kick starting dark fibre in locations where Openreach has fibre already installed. The consultation runs until 18th January 2019 and the new unrestricted access should arrive in Spring 2019.

Dark fibre is of big interest since along with the improved PIA would allow mobile operators to install more mobile masts or upgrade connectivity at existing masts for a lot lower costs. With the growing number of metro networks in existence across the UK using PIA and Openreach dark fibre would also potentially allow those metro networks to spread over much larger footprints and be able to under cut the price of equivalent leased line services from Openreach.

The changes to the rules are not going to be uniform across the UK, so in areas where competitors metro networks already exist there will not be a requirement on BT/Openreach to offer dark fibre. How these areas are defined in terms of what constitutes competition and a sensible size is all part of what Ofcom wants input on from interested parties.

The option to rent a dark fibre and light it with your own optics at say 10 Gbps or add multiple wavelengths to take speeds higher and higher in rural areas could lead to an explosion of digital hub projects in rural areas but the stumbling blocks will be what fibre is considered to be included in the dark fibre rules e.g. a VDSL2 cabinet with 4 fibres running to it, with 1 in use, can someone rent the remaining 3? Leaving no spare fibre in case of damage or people renting fibre that was earmarked for a GPON roll-out in the next 10 to 14 years. The other question will be around what points are considered interconnects, i.e. is access restricted to exchanges, specified footway chambers or totally unrestricted and BT/Openreach would be expected to offer a break-out on request at any point along a fibre path? Also poles can only carry so much fibre.

Our ducts and poles have been open since 2011 and we’ve launched a number of improvements to make them easier to use, with more due in April. We also support the move to unrestricted access under conditions which continue to encourage investment.

We share Ofcom’s desire to constantly improve service performance and, having recently delivered our best ever levels of service, we’re committed to continuing that.

We’ll consider the range of proposals in both consultations carefully, whilst continuing to work with Ofcom on developing an effective model that encourages investment.

Openreach spokesperson on BCMR consultation

The Openreach statement arrived while we were writing up on monthly speed test results, so has been rolled into this summary of what the Ofcom consultation is aiming to do.

PIA in its current format does appear to be used more but the sense you get from those trying to use it is that BT and Openreach have some way to go to keep everyone who is using it happy and a lot of the problem seems to be scaling up from a small trial to rolling out across a wider area and getting all the 'paperwork' resolved for accessing large numbers of poles or ducts in an area.

If the success of the changes that lead to the explosion of LLU back in 2006 can be replicated it may be that Openreach becomes less the guardian of a copper local loop network but the people maintaining a duct and pole network on the behalf of other operators.

When Openreach and BT Group talk of the environment needing to be right to commit to a full fibre roll-out to 10 million premises by 2025, the balancing act between engineering staff working on PIA or installing their own fibre network are very what we believe is being referred to. In the sense of sweating assets if Ofcom gets pricing regulation of PIA wrong, BT investors might decide there is more profit from letting others use the ducts, rather than trying to compete in the full fibre residential and SME market, alternatively the pricing may get set wrong in the sense that it discourages competition i.e. there is going to be a very fine balancing act involved and a mixture of winners and losers.

The metallic local loop is dead, but who controls and operators the fibre local loop and how many options we have is the big battle now.

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