Ofcom has published its proposals for the regulation of next-generation broadband access in the UK, giving communications providers an idea of the risk and returns they can expect when investing in fibre.
On Tuesday, the telecoms regulator said it wants BT to give competitors access to a dedicated virtual link over the new fibre lines BT lays out. Ofcom would, in return, let BT set its own wholesale prices for that access, as an encouragement to the telecoms and IT giant to invest in its network.
"Super-fast broadband is starting to be a reality in the UK, with very significant advances in recent months in the speeds some providers are offering," Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards said in a statement. "Ofcom's proposed regulatory framework is intended to support the next phase of development by promoting investment, competition and innovation for consumers across the UK."
Under the proposals, BT's rivals will also get access to the company's underground ducts and overhead telegraph poles. This should allow them to lay their own fibre in the rural areas where BT is not yet planning to invest in high-speed access. BT would have to give those rivals "detailed information... about, for example, the available capacity and quality of ducts and poles", Ofcom said.
The regulator's own surveys of BT's duct network, conducted over the past two years, showed that almost half the ducts had room for new cables in some locations. The surveys also found that some telegraph poles had space for additional wires.
BT said in July 2008 that it intended to roll out fibre-based, high-speed broadband to up to 10 million homes across the country by 2012. Such connections are designed to be able to support access speeds of up to 100Mbps, with even faster speeds possible in the future.
Ofcom expects to announce its finalised rules in the autumn, once its consultation into the matter has closed. BT then has three months to publish details about its ducts and telegraph poles, and eight months to open those channels up to competitors.
BT is already providing other companies with access to its trial fibre networks, the company pointed out in a statement on Tuesday.
"We welcome Ofcom's view that it provides others with substantial control and so will be the most likely way that fibre will be delivered in the future," BT said. "That recognition, combined with us having pricing freedom for that product, provides some of the regulatory clarity and certainty that we have been seeking."
The company added that duct access was "unlikely to be the 'silver bullet' to get fibre to the countryside, but all options should be explored".