Peers warn government of anti-competitive broadband strategy

Implementing BT's fibre product is preventing the UK from having an open and competitive broadband infrastructure, according to the House of Lords Communications Committee.

In a report entitled ‘Broadband for all – an alternative vision’, the Committee noted that the government had originally intended to deliver a digital hub in every community, but this seems to have been substituted by BT’s fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) product, which allows anyone to purchase a fibre link to the premise for a price.

The committee did not believe this was a suitable strategy for building a competitive infrastructure: “The exclusive ability of one provider to build a final fibre link is actually a categorical departure from the idea of an open access fibre optic hub in which anyone is permitted to build a link between premises in the community and a fibre in the hub,” it said.

“In fact, it well and truly puts the kibosh on the idea. While the government clearly considered the proposal in general terms early on in their deliberations, it is fair to say now, that it has disappeared from their plans in implementation.”

The peers suggested that Ofcom should force current infrastructure owners to provide open access to dark fibre at the level of the cabinet, and active and passive access, together with rights to install and collocate active equipment on relevant links, at the level of the exchange.

“Our communications network must be regarded as a strategic, national asset. The government’s strategy lacks just that – strategy,” said committee chairman Lord Inglewood.

“The complex issues involved were not thought through from first principle and it is far from clear that the government’s policy will deliver the broadband infrastructure that we need – for profound social and economic reasons – for the decades to come.”

An open access ‘hub’ would act as a waystation between the community and the broadband infrastructure that spreads throughout the country. ‘Dark’ fibre optic cables, fibre that isn’t currently live, would run into the hub and anybody would be permitted to build a link between a premises in the community and that hub, using their own passive or active electronic equipment.

They would then rent the existing fibre that they are connecting to, and would theoretically allow any type of compatible access network to be built by any local community, SME or infrastructure provider.

It is hoped that by providing open access to dark fibre at the cabinet level will encourage increased competition in the market, as it reduces the costs for smaller players.

There is increasing concernthat the government’s Broadband Delivery framework (BDUK) is favouring incumbent supplier BT, as a number of alternative providers have pulled out of the bidding process, leaving BT to win the majority of public funds.

The report recognised that the creation of these open access ‘hubs’ may help to allay concerns from Brussels that BT is receiving too much public funding. Although much of the BDUK money has been allocated to local authorities, it cannot yet be spent until the European Commission gives state aid approval, which may take another six months.

The UK government has said that it hopes to have the best broadband network in Europe by 2015, and has committed a minimum of £730 million up until 2015 to support the rollout. The money is being distributed to local authorities that bid for funding via a framework created by governing body Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK).

Computerworld UKcontacted BT for comment on the report, but, unlike the media, was not provided access under embargo.

A spokesman said: “BT is unable to comment on the report as the committee have not had the courtesy to share it with us. That is despite us formally requesting a copy at the same time it was provided to the media.”

The committee also recognised that a large ISP, such as BT, may be “reluctant to deal with, and rely on, a number of small and disparate infrastructure providers”. It proposed the virtual aggregation of networks into larger units to resolve this issue, which would allow an ISP to interact with a management organisation acting as an intermediary, rather than the network owner itself.

It said: “We would, therefore, urge the industry to work to ensure there is such an organisation, and that it is fit for purpose.

“We are aware, for example, that INCA, the Independent Networks Cooperative Association, may be able to act in this capacity.”

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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