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Mobile operators appeal for dark fibre access to back 5G

O2, Three and Vodafone unite in calling for more to be done to open up dark fibre networks to supply desperately needed capacity for their future 5G networks

Mobile network operators (MNOs) O2, Three and Vodafone have made an appeal for telecoms regulator Ofcom to work with them to help them access wholesale dark fibre as a means to help them enhance capacity for their soon-to-be-built 5G mobile networks.

Openreach had been on the verge of launching a wholesale dark fibre access (DFA) product to enable CSPs to deliver their own connectivity services using its dark fibre network on the orders of Ofcom, but it shelved the launch in August 2017 after successfully appealing to the Competition Appeals Tribunal on the basis of errors made by the regulator on a number of key points.

At the time, market watchers noted that Openreach’s decision would potentially have severe ramifications for mobile operators, which badly need more fibre backhaul to address the needs of data-hungry customers using their ever-growing 4G networks.

This prediction appears to be coming true, and with commercial 5G networks now a year closer to reality, the need for fibre to support the massive capacity promise of 5G is becoming even more urgent.

Speaking at the annual Connected Britain event, O2 UK COO Derek McManus said the current environment around fibre was not conducive to his plans to roll-out an effective 5G network in the UK.

“Fibre in the UK still falls behind many of the developed nations, particularly for residential and mobile. We need that market to be developed and made more competitive to encourage faster deployment of 5G,” said McManus.

“We are disappointed with the decision not to proceed with the introduction of an unrestricted dark fibre product – that’s a missed opportunity that will hold the UK back.”

Dave Dyson, CEO of Three, which recently signed an agreement with SSE Enterprise Telecoms to bring 20 core datacentres on-net with new fibre connections in preparation for 5G, agreed that in regulatory terms, things were not where they needed to be to guarantee an on-schedule launch of 5G services.

“Fibre is critically important to 5G… We need access to ducts, poles and dark fibre,” said Dyson.

Vodafone’s chief strategy officer, Vishal Dixit, said the issue of dark fibre kept him awake at night, and called for Ofcom to support unrestricted access to the resource.

The operators unanimously agreed that there was now an urgent need for more government and regulatory action to help them roll out 5G, particularly around liberalising planning legislation and site acquisition laws that they believe stifles their incentive and ability to invest.

“As operators we are all aligned on the factors we need to discuss with government,” said O2’s McManus. “We now need to move from talk to action. The next layer is real industry collaboration – businesses and customers working with industry on how we can work together to make 5G real for the benefit of the UK.”

“The government has a bold ambition for 5G, but it needs to back it up with bold decisions on how we work with planners and landlords to speed up roll-out,” added Dyson.

Vodafone’s Dixit said a sense of urgency was now needed, because planning, designing and building networks takes a long time, and 2020 is edging closer.

“There is not much time left for us all to collaborate to be sure on the prerequisites for 5G – dark fibre being one of them. We are in a better place in terms of alignment and collaboration, but if we want [the UK] to be a 5G leader, urgency is needed,” he said.

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