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UK telcos to gain new rights to support 5G connectivity

Telecoms companies in the UK will be given "unrestricted access" to the infrastructure owned by BT to deploy their own high-speed, high-capacity broadband networks, including those built on fibre-optic cables and '5G' wireless technology, under proposals published by Ofcom.08 Nov 2018

The UK government said this summer that it wants 5G mobile technology to be available in "the majority" of the UK by 2027, and for homes and businesses "nationwide" in the UK to have access to 'full fibre' broadband networks by 2033 – 15 million by 2025. It has also backed investment in ultrafast broadband.

Now, in its physical infrastructure market review (233-page / 2.43MB PDF), the country's telecoms regulator has proposed placing new regulatory conditions on BT to ensure it facilitates rivals' reasonable requests for access to "the entirety of its duct and pole network". Openreach, a division of BT which provides network connection and maintenance services to BT and its rivals, will be responsible for enabling the access rights proposed.

The measures Ofcom has outlined, which are open to consultation until 18 January 2019, are aimed at helping smaller telecoms companies overcome the cost barriers associated with installing their own telecoms infrastructure to support new networks and at boosting competition in the retail broadband markets. They build on measures already outlined by Ofcom in its wholesale local access (WLA) market review.

"In the 2018 [WLA] market review, we put in place measures to ensure Openreach gives other companies access to its network of ducts and poles," Ofcom said. "While potentially halving the upfront cost of building a full-fibre network, this measure is only available to companies primarily deploying broadband and fixed telephony networks, because it was a remedy to competition problems identified in the defined WLA market. This restriction means that fibre operators using duct and pole access must demonstrate that they have a firm intention to deploy broadband – a hurdle that Openreach does not face."

"Therefore, we propose to address the market power we have identified in physical infrastructure markets by imposing an unrestricted access remedy. We consider giving all companies greater unrestricted access to ducts and poles will allow competition to emerge more strongly in all telecoms services, both for residential and business customers and will provide greater flexibility to operators seeking to provide new types of networks – for example fixed wireless broadband services based on 5G technology," the regulator said.

Ofcom said that currently Openreach enjoys an "enduring advantage … in deploying fibre" because it controls "the largest and most comprehensive duct and pole network in the UK". This allows it to deploy fibre "more cheaply and quickly than its competitors", it said.

Among the new regulatory controls that Ofcom has proposed imposing on BT is a requirement not to "unduly discriminate" when considering access requests. It would have to "offer all customers the same terms and conditions (including prices) and apply the same processes unless there is a reason to justify acting otherwise", Ofcom said.

BT would also face a number of transparency requirements, including that it has a "clear and public process" for handling access requests, and that it publishes "the terms and conditions under which any network access service using to ducts and poles is provided either to other companies or to themselves".

"We believe competition among different networks is the most effective way to spur continued investment and innovation in high-quality, full-fibre networks and other critical telecommunications services," Ofcom said. "Promoting competition is central to our efforts to stimulate investment in the UK’s telecoms sector and the infrastructure the country needs."

Ofcom said it expects to publish its final decision statement in the spring of 2019. Regulatory measures that it outlines in that statement would take effect one month after the date of publication, it said.

The regulator has also opened two further consultations in respect of its separate business connectivity market review. The first paper sets out Ofcom's view of competition for leased lines, its assessment that the market can be broken into two distinct markets, and that remedies are needed in some areas of the UK to address where BT, and KCOM in Hull, face no or limited competition. The second paper sets out the proposed design of price caps the regulator intends to impose on BT when the company enables wholesale access to its network and in the circumstances where the regulator has deemed a cap appropriate.