Ofcom announces 2021 changes to support UK investment in full fibre
Ofcom’s Wholesale Fixed Telecoms Market Review 2021-26 (FTMR) outlines how changes including Dark Fibre access and copper retirement will boost the UK’s full fibre capacity. This is the first time the FTMR has combined the Business Connectivity Market Review and the Wholesale Local Access Market Review to create a holistic view of the market. The commitment of a five-year review is designed to give operators more clarity over future regulation when planning investment.
Right now FTTP covers 19% of UK businesses and homes, rising to 37% for Gigabit capable services. The government plans to extend gigabit coverage to 85% of properties by the close of 2025, thanks to a £5m investment for the most difficult to reach areas.
The review is focused on removing challenges to full fibre coverage and outlines a number of key changes designed to deliver that objective. Ofcom proposes regulating Openreach broadband by area, predicated on three key factors - whether they’re competitive, potentially competitive or non-competitive.
Ofcom has also decided to extend the prohibition on offering geographical discounts on superfast broadband wholesale services to full fibre. The new geographic based approach also means that Openreach must now introduce true Dark Fibre Access for non-competitive areas. New Quality of Service standards have also been introduced.
Openreach is also required to retire copper from an area once 75% of full fibre is in place. This will minimise disruption for consumers but could take a decade to achieve.
Ofcom has not yet defined any competitive areas where two or more networks exist. In potentially competitive areas, around 70% of the UK, Openreach will be expected to provide wholesale access to its networks. Ofcom will also maintain regulated prices for Openreach’s entry-level 40Mbps (10Mbps upload) broadband while accepting that full fibre is likely to cost around £1.70 a week more. Higher speed services, however, will remain unregulated.
Around 30% of the UK is covered by one operator, Openreach, and will see a regulated asset base model in place. Ofcom has said that if Openreach can make a firm commitment to lay fibre in hard to reach areas, the cost of its deployment can be included in its prices from the outset. BT has made a commercial commitment to deliver FTTP to 3.2m rural premises in the UK.
Other issues and challenges
However, some issues fall outside the FTMR remit, including the discussion on extending the current five-year holiday on new fibre business rates. Scotland has already extended to a 10-year relief period, but Westminster has yet to make a call.
The question also remains as to when Ofcom will impose cost-based prices on fibre. The regulator’s current stance is that they won’t address the issue until 2031, when the landscape could look very different. Ofcom has stated that if investment and competition are still emerging by that time, regulation would be expected to support rather than hinder such development.
The regulator is also looking at making switching to full fibre ISPs and improving phone number ports quicker and easier.