BT spearheads plans to accelerate switchover from copper to fibre

Full-fibre broadband could replace copper networks region by region over the next six years, under proposals discussed with the government

BT and other broadband infrastructure providers have been in talks with the government about plans to move away from the UK’s ageing copper networks.

The secret talks were revealed by Sky News, which reported that full-fibre broadband – also known as fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) – would replace existing copper networks on a staggered, region-by-region basis over the next six years.

Under the proposals, consumers and businesses would be given two years in each area of the country to move to a new full-fibre provider, with a final switch-off date in 2027 for the remaining copper-line users.

The infrastructure providers, including TalkTalk, CityFibre and BT’s Openreach, would be obliged to commit to building full-fibre networks in rural areas, where delivery is more complex than in towns and cities.

A BT spokesperson said: “As we made clear at the time of our last financial results, there needs to be a determined acceleration towards a pro-investment policy and regulatory regime, so BT is keen to see the industry work together with government on the big challenges – such as digital switchover and rural coverage – that we all want to see addressed.”

If the plan is achieved, the industry could deliver prime minister Boris Johnson’s revised 2025 target for the roll-out of universal fast broadband across the UK. Previously, the government had pledged to complete the process by 2033.

But there are concerns over competition in the construction of full-fibre infrastructure, with CityFibre criticising regulator Ofcom’s focus on Openreach to deliver the copper switch-off.

“In the light of our funded and mobilised Gigabit City programme to deploy wholesale full-fibre infrastructure to at least five million homes, Ofcom’s exclusive focus on BT Openreach as the vehicle for migration from copper to fibre is wrong,” said CityFibre CEO Greg Mesch.

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“Retiring the copper network needs to be managed in a way that promotes competition, benefiting every builder of fibre networks, rather than simply reinforcing BT Openreach’s existing market dominance. Consumers should have the power to switch to any full-fibre network.”

Like other new competitors such as Hyperoptic and Gigaclear, CityFibre was established to seize market share from Openreach, which now operates on a more arm’s-length basis from the BT Group.

According to Ofcom’s Connected Nations 2019 summer update, just 8% of UK homes – 2.5 million in total – currently have access to full-fibre broadband.

Industry estimates suggest the cost of achieving universal FTTP coverage could be more than £30bn.

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