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Dark fibre arts: Ofcom is determined to open up BT's network

But will it make a difference?

By Richard Priday

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Analysis BT has long been accused of jealously guarding its infrastructure. But forcing it to open up its network to competitors and break its market dominance has been an aim of Ofcom for some time.

One key measure was the proposal to allow access to Openreach's dark fibre optic network, the unused parts of its infrastructure installed alongside currently used "lit" lines for future demand. (Its worth noting that the infrastructure is still owned by BT, despite the legal separation of Openreach.)

After earlier plans by the regulator were thwarted in court, Dark Fibre Access (DFA) is back on the menu. Ofcom, the UK's communications regulator, launched a consultation yesterday.

Independent analyst Matt Howett noted that the latest plans are essentially a slightly watered-down proposal of what Ofcom had already suggested after the Competition Appeal Tribunal identified said Ofcom wrongly defined markets. In a nutshell, Ofcom has now narrowed its definition of connections to include speeds less than 1Gbps per, as opposed to unspecified speeds.

"We believe dark fibre can provide significant benefits for businesses and consumers – supporting better broadband and mobile services, including 5G," said the document.

Howett said the reason that Ofcom is keen to push dark fibre access is because it doesn't want to be accused of having failed to remove that as a barrier for ISPs.

Openreach alternative

Since the regulator was forced to go back to the drawing board, Openreach has come up with an alternative Optical Spectrum Access (OSA) Filter Connect, intended to give ISPs access to its networks via an Openreach-managed service.

According to an Ofcom spokesperson, it said Openreach's OSA Filter Connect "is not a substitute" to their DFA proposal, since this method keeps Openreach's control of the endpoints of the system.

But Howett said ISPs were interested in the product when it was announced, partly because at the time there was nothing else available, and also because a voluntary product might be a more workable "alternative than being dragged along by the regulator".

However, he added: "Some ISPs would undoubtedly prefer an unrestricted dark fibre product."

That was certainly true for SSE Enterprise Telecoms, which got so fed up of waiting for a resolution on BT's dark fibre it resorted to a deal with Thames Water to put its pipes in London's sewer network.

Other ISPs have privately commented that they don't believe Openreach's dark fibre alternative would be effective as direct access – believing BT's main problem is it simply doesn't want competitors to have unfettered access to its infrastructure.

DFA: A disincentive?

But infrastructure builders, such as Virgin Media and CityFibre, are less keen on the idea. "They have invested heavily in fibre, and concerned that opening up dark fibre would send the wrong message as it undermines the investment case for rolling out more fibre. It is also arguably at odds with Ofcom's position that it wants to incentivise more fibre investment," Howett said.

The new version of DFA will take comments until December 29 and a decision on further action will follow soon after.

Howett said that the two schemes could compete, but only in certain circumstances. "It depends on the speed, specifically if OSA offers the same or faster speeds as DFA's under 1Gbps rate."

Given the fact that Ofcom has had to start from scratch with its dark fibre plans, its likely that Openreach's alternative will be available first.

We're unlikely to hear much more until next year, when Ofcom decides to make its next move or Openreach finalises its own plans.

When the regulator puts forward a final proposal for dark fibre access, it will be interesting to see if ISPs come round to a fully formed idea of DFA, or if the Openreach alternative with potential for higher speeds will undermine the regulator's effort and keep the dark fibre dark.

Either way, it seems Ofcom's desire to open up Openreach/BT's network still remains a long way off. ®

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