Ofcom demands BT offer rivals access to 'dark fibre' business grid

Ofcom is proposing that BT should give competitors physical access to its fibre-optic cables, allowing competing operators to take direct control of the connection

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Comms regulator Ofcom is forcing BT to allow access to its dark unlit fibre outside central London, to allow competitors to offer high speed data links to firms more quickly and cheaply.

Ofcom said the measure is designed to promote competition and innovation in the £2 billion market for “leased lines” - dedicated, high-speed data links used by large businesses and mobile and broadband operators to transfer data on their networks.

Leased lines also provide vital, high-capacity links for schools, universities, libraries and other public bodies.

Take-up of these lines is growing as consumers use more data on smartphones, tablets and connected TVs, and companies shift ever-increasing amounts of information between locations to support sophisticated internet services, said Ofcom.

“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,” said Ofcom.

Ofcom is proposing that BT should give competitors physical access to its fibre-optic cables, allowing competing operators to take direct control of the connection. This service is often referred to as dark fibre, because the fibre-optic cables would not be “lit” using BT’s electronic equipment. Instead, they would be lit by the competitor installing its own equipment at either end of the cable. 

BT is already required to offer wholesale leased line products, which bundle the fibre-optic cable and BT’s own network equipment, at regulated prices to competitors.

BT would still be required to provide these services, but the new proposal would go further, allowing operators to use BT’s fibre-optic cables with their own equipment, rather than rely on BT’s. “This should increase the opportunity for competitors to create tailored, high-capacity data links at cost-effective prices for their customers,” Ofcom said.

Jonathan Oxley, Ofcom competition group director, said: “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. 

“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.”

As part of the dark fibre proposals, Ofcom requires BT to publish a draft “reference offer” for industry, containing wholesale pricing and terms for access in mid-2016. Dark fibre access would then be available to other telecoms providers from April 2017. The plan does not include central London as Ofcom has deemed the market there as already “competitive”. 

Greg Mesch, CEO of CityFibre, said of the Ofcom move: “CityFibre welcomes Ofcom’s proposal that BT is compelled to make dark fibre available by April 2017 as part of its Business Connectivity Market Review (BCMR).

"Dark fibre has been validated worldwide as the only infrastructure platform to deliver cost-effective, future-proof digital connectivity fit for purpose in the decades to come.” 

CityFibre has used dark fibre to deliver its Gigabit City projects in York, Peterborough, Coventry, Aberdeen and Edinburgh over the last three years. In the last year, it says it has also delivered the UK’s first dark fibre solution to a Public Services Network (PSN) project, the first dark fibre network to mobile operators EE and Three, and the first trial of a dark fibre fibre-to-the-home project with Sky and TalkTalk.

Barney Lane, director of regulation at Colt, said of the proposal: “The ruling by Ofcom marks the first step in ensuring that businesses up and down Britain can get access to the affordable, high-quality and high-speed connectivity they so desperately need.

“Up until now, alternative connectivity providers haven't been able to roll out new superfast fibre using the incumbent's passive infrastructure, so businesses are struggling with outdated, slow connectivity, which is holding them back.”

He said: “Tablets, mobiles and wearables, mixed with cloud, analytics and social collaboration, have already begun to sweep British workplaces, and by 2020, around 50 billion 'things' will be connected to the internet. This offers businesses great opportunities, but, to-date, the UK's network infrastructure hasn't been able to support this new digital economy.”