Ofcom sidesteps dark fibre issue

BT and Ofcom are facing calls to further open up the telecom giant's fibre network to help rivals offer high-speed broadband services.

BT and Ofcom are facing calls to further open up the telecom giant's fibre network to help rivals offer high-speed broadband services.

BT will not offer customers dark fibre - the ability to lease fibre-optic cables - forcing rivals to use BT services, such as the 10Gbps fibre-based Wavestream, when setting up their networks.

This means Ofcom's latest proposals to allow the "virtual unbundling" of BT's fibre, far from encouraging competition, could consolidate BT's position as the UK's biggest fibre network operator, according to David Harrington, regulatory affairs spokesman for the Communication Managers Association.

"There is a very real demand for dark fibre - for use by enterprises both public and private - to interconnect sites and by communication providers for backhaul. BT won't supply it to protect its leased line market and Ofcom seems reluctant to act," he said.

Bill Murphy, managing director of BT's Next Generation Access programme - which cuts across BT's Openreach, Wholesale and Retail divisions - told Computer Weekly recently that BT would not supply dark fibre because of the experience of other network operators during the dot.com crash.

He said many operators that provided dark fibre, which allows customers the maximum freedom to set up and control their networks, went bust in the crash. Those that survived were the ones that restructured and offered services, he said.

Bill Murphy was speaking in a follow-up interview after his comments at the Cumbria broadband conference, organised by local MP Rory Stewart last month.

Murphy said BT's regulated infrastructure supplier Openreach introduced competition in the form of access to 1,200 or more communication service providers when it entered an area. "It's not just BT Retail [that can offer services]," he said.

However, BT may be forced to provide dark fibre if the UK implements European Commission proposals on regulated network access products. These say: "Access seekers should be able to select the solution best fitting their requirements, whether dark fibre (and where relevant copper), Ethernet backhaul or duct access."

In the meantime, BT's unwillingness to provide dark fibre means there is little scope for others to offer products that do not depend on BT's added value services at some point in their network.

Ofcom proposes to allow Openreach freedom to price these services without regulation, provided BT's other divisions pay the same price as rival communications providers.

BT has also said it is willing to share its infrastructure, such as poles and ducts, with other network operators, provided they allow BT access to their infrastructure.

Murphy said public-private partnership was the right way to go in view of the economics of providing broadband in areas like Cumbria.

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