UK telecoms regulator Ofcom has issued proposals to BT that would require the firm to open up its fibre network to other service providers and speed up Openreach installations.
Ofcom's proposals say that BT should enable access through what is called dark fibre, a system whereby a different provider offers the connection through the BT network.
The firm would also be expected to offer and deliver ‘faster installations' for high-speed Openreach lines. This could make fibre and high-speed broadband cheaper for end users, including enterprises.
"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," said Jonathan Oxley, Ofcom competition group director.
"Today's proposals should help businesses across the UK who rely on high-speed data lines. We want to see more innovation, faster installations and more competition by providing operators with the opportunity to deploy the technologies of their choice."
Meanwhile BT is told to 'come to the dark fibre side Luke' as Ofcom finally embraces dark fibre. BT will fight that all the way— Nic Fildes (@NicFildes) May 15, 2015
However, BT said in a statement that the current systems are "level and fair", and that dark fibre presents new problems.
"Openreach's current offer creates a level playing field and a vibrant, competitive market with hundreds of competing companies, large and small," said a spokesperson.
"Mandating dark fibre risks favouring a few companies that have the greatest capability to deploy it, to the disadvantage of all other firms.
"It will undermine investment - as a number of service providers have warned - and it would also increase costs, divert resources and add more complexity just when we're beginning to make progress on improving service."
Ofcom has already considered, and dismissed the idea of dark fibre as a ‘passive remedy', deciding in 2013 that the negatives outweigh the positives.
"Some stakeholders asked us to consider imposing passive remedies, such as regulated access to BT's ducts and poles and/or dark fibre, in order to address BT's continuing SMP in leased lines markets," it said then.
We asked Ofcom what has changed its mind its the last two years, and it said that its earlier concerns have been balanced against issues of "demand and potential benefits.
"The market has moved on since the last review. As these lines become increasingly critical to businesses, communications providers are looking for a range of technical options and features. We now believe that competition could be dampened if providers don't have the flexibility they need to deliver services of their choice, at their own pace," said a spokesperson.
"We have seen much more interest in dark fibre this time from providers, who have also given us firm examples of how dark fibre can help them innovate. We also believe we can mitigate any risk around costs and investments through the design of the dark fibre product. Pricing will be important - it needs to be sufficiently high to allow BT to recover its costs, for example."
Greg Mesch, CEO at CityFibre, which has been offering services based on dark fibre for three years, welcomed the intervention from the regulator.
"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," he said.
"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..."
Ofcom's document is just a proposal and forms part of the regulator's Business Connectivity Review. Frustrated broadband users may appreciate its sentiments, though.
Ofcom said that it is "concerned" about the time it takes BT to install leased lines, and would like to see the time between orders being made and services being delivered kept down to 40 days.
"Ofcom is concerned that, last year, Openreach only completed around half of leased line installations on the initial date it promised to its customer," the watchdog added.
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