Finally - progress on a UK digital infrastructure for the next 50 years

BT demonstrated this week the depths of its sensitivity to Ofcom’s threat to break up the telecoms giant.

Ofcom’s communications market review, published in March, set out its desire to see fibre to the premises (FTTP) broadband become the dominant technology over the next 10 years, and retained the right to force the separation of Openreach, BT’s local infrastructure subsidiary, to achieve that end.

Lo and behold, suddenly BT finds a few billion quid down the back of the sofa and promises two million FTTP premises by 2020.

This, despite the many occasions in the past that BT executives have insisted we don’t need FTTP and that sweating its copper assets will provide everything the UK digital economy needs for the foreseeable future.

Ofcom and BT are due to sit down soon to discuss the new regulatory environment that the telecoms watchdog wants to introduce to encourage rivals to install their own FTTP networks, using BT’s existing poles and ducts.

It seems clear that BT wants to go into those negotiations with a halo above its head, saying, “What, us?”

Virgin Media’s announcement in April of an FTTP roll-out to a million properties by 2020 helped too – showing to BT that broadband provider momentum is going in a different direction to its preferred plans.

Good for Ofcom – the regulator has taken its fair and justified share of criticism in the past, but it’s shown that when it sees the market being hindered by BT’s dominance it’s not afraid to act.

It’s still a shame, nonetheless, that it takes a regulatory threat to make BT act and embrace the FTTP technology that the most advanced digital nations have already invested in.

Smaller rivals such as Gigaclear and CityFibre are already making early progress in bringing FTTP to the most economically viable areas and BT must see that if it lags for too long, then when broadband demand switches to services that require FTTP it would be in a dangerous position.

We’re still taking small steps, but it’s encouraging to see that we are finally starting to make a serious move to building the digital infrastructure that the UK will need for the next 50 years, not just the next 10.

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