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Ofcom CEO Sharon White has told members of Parliament (MPs) that she hopes to put forward a full set of proposals on how communications service providers (CSPs) will get access to BT Openreach’s duct and pole infrastructure in the next two to three months.
Ofcom proposed giving other CSPs more rights to access the Openreach network in its Strategic Review of Digital Communications in February 2016.
The objective in doing so is to give CSPs such as Sky and TalkTalk the opportunity to put their money where their mouth is and invest in more direct fibre-to-the-premise networks (FTTP). The regulator hopes that, in doing so, it will cajole BT into further investment of its own.
Giving evidence to a Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee session, White conceded that the pre-existing mechanism to allow rivals to access BT’s duct and pole infrastructure had not been a success by any measure.
“The access was in place to provide a bit of competition in BDUK [Broadband Delivery UK] areas. As a regulator, we did not put our weight behind it. We had not put in place the key enablers investors need for duct and pole access to be realistic because we prioritised the push on superfast,” said White.
“This summer, the [European Union] Civil Infrastructure Directive comes through, which puts another legal layer into the requirements for BT, and other providers, to open their networks,” she said.
“We will ensure there is clear guidance in there about how others can come in and access the ducts and poles.”
Proposals on Openreach to come
The EU’s Civil Infrastructure Directive will be incorporated into UK law during the summer of 2016 – assuming the UK votes to remain in the European Union (EU).
It stipulates that member states must make sure every network operator has the right to offer access to their physical infrastructure with a view to deployment of superfast broadband services.
White told the panel that Ofcom is working extensively behind the scenes on new mechanisms to encourage CSPs to take advantage of the opening up of the Openreach network. Ofcom is also looking into how to put processes in place to make sure problems such as blocked ducts are dealt with swiftly and appropriately by Openreach.
Ofcom intends to present more detailed proposals on the future of BT’s governance of Openreach at around the same time, subject to the outcome of ongoing negotiations, said White.
“We will have a detailed proposal by the summer. We’ll see whether BT is happy to agree to that on a voluntary basis. If not, that would be the trigger for discussions with the European Commission [EC]. We would hope for those to be concluded as soon as possible, but I’m not going to put a timetable on it,” she said.
White also commented further on her decision not to force full structural separation of BT and Openreach at this stage – while keeping it as an option – and refuted remarks made to the committee by economist and energy sector expert Dieter Helm earlier in 2016.
Helm had argued that Ofcom had essentially come to the conclusion that BT and Openreach should be separated, and then shied away from acting on that conclusion.
“He thought we had come under political pressure and that is absolutely not the case. We take decisions with neither fear nor favour. We kept structural separation as a possibility and it may be the road we go down,” said White.
White was also asked whether she had been lobbied or written to by digital economy minister Ed Vaizey – an opponent of structural separation of BT and Openreach – during the course of the consultation. White said she had not been and Ofcom would have made it public if she had.
With more than 100 testimonials from various stakeholders heard, the Select Committee is close to concluding its broadband inquiry. It will be questioning Ed Vaizey on Wednesday 13 April 2016.
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