Towards a UK Plan for a fibre access switchover programme.
The following is a contribution to UK infrastructure investment and is meant to add to the proposals being progressed by the Fibre to the Home Council.
Step 1. The importance of a plan – any plan.
The absence of a UK fibre access switchover plan is not a neutral position. It actively supports the interests of incumbents slow to invest in the final mile. The lack of a plan is not their fault.
It is alleged that the economic case, in terms of proving that fibre access has a lower long term operating cost than copper was completed by incumbent operators by about 1986. The only debate was who would pay for the transition costs and the costs of running two networks while that transition took place.
The argument over who pays, is more over how will the user pay, directly or indirectly through taxes or increased charges and to whom they will pay. The precise prize is unknown but the assumption is more and better connectivity at a lower price in the coming decades. Given, discovering our potential as individuals is reliant on our ability to access and use information and communicate with others, then planning on providing more connectivity is not a bad bet.
The current attempts by Birmingham (and others cities) to get a network built and improved in the Jewellery quarter is slightly depressing. We have one group of lawyers getting state aid approval for a local proposal which to work needs a reasonably simple national approach to replacing copper access network with fibre access. We have a second group of lawyers from incumbent operators reacting to block the proposal which would be unlikely to be feasible given its small scale.
It does highlight however, incumbent operators are keen to hold onto to what they have in the absence of wider supporting plan, and points to customers wishing for more connectivity at a lower price than currently available. The backdrop is an internet model delivering data at 1 dollar a Gigabit from internet exchange to the home, versus a regulated and taxed telephony model to take at least 5 times that amount.
In the absence of any fibre switchover plan or even an aspiration to switchover however ambiguously stated means Birmingham and other cities will struggle to do anything other than spend their Urban Broadband Fund monies with incumbent operators. Without a clearly stated aspiration backed by the appropriate policies, the economists at Ofcom will be unable to identify a market failure in either Broadband provision or in the Business Connectivity markets (private circuits). In this case the absence of a national fibre transition plan is not neutral but actively prevents a new market, the market for fibre to the premise using IP based protocols only from superseding the legacy networks.
Step 2. Cities declare for fibre access in buildings they control.
In the absence of a national plan, Councils leaders and mayors can step in and fill the vacuum by making their own declarations along the following lines. Birmingham (any City), using the Urban Broadband Funds allocated, could use the funds to declare that all its public owned and controlled buildings are being readied for blown fibre access, from a new termination point on the boundary on each building. How deep the fibre is blown into the building will be dependent on the building but establishing the principal and a new market definition is what is important. The market will be invited to provide a choice of fibre access from these new termination points be it Docsis, GPON, P2P or a mix, and it is envisaged such access will replace existing copper by a date to be determined by each City.
Step 3. Cities notify Ofcom of their requirements.
Cities will need to inform Ofcom of their intentions mentioning the following.
a) Confirm Cities fibre access plan, including the number of buildings to be readied for blown fibre. This would result for the first time in sufficient demand to justify a re-examination of duct and pole access products from incumbent operators. To date insufficient proven demand has meant Ofcom has done the minimum needed to tick the boxes.
b) Inform Ofcom that you intend owning and maintaining duct and the network termination point, but are content for operators to use it to convey their fibres.
c) Request Ofcom consult and then confirm the nature and definition of what will be a new network termination point for industry. It will look like a patch panel for fibres.
d) Request Ofcom to confirm competitiveness of duct and pole sharing products given the new demand and your expectation that more than one operator would be willing to offer service.
e) Request Ofcom examine the need to impose reciprocal duct sharing arrangements on all operators. Where this is not forthcoming, make clear cities can build their own passive assets ready for sharing, if industry are not moving quickly enough.
This aspiration can be added too by making similar declarations for business parks, and other new developments.
The Bit Commons is willing to offer£5 to each of the first 50 Mayors or council leaders to step up and declare their intent and ambition on this matter.
Comments and critique are welcome.