At the beginning of January, the UK Communications Regulator (Ofcom) set out a series of measures to support the UK Government's efforts to deliver world-class digital infrastructure and promote investment in fibre (with 15 million premises connected to full fibre by 2025 and nationwide coverage by 2033) and 5G available to the majority of the UK by 2027. Ofcom published a detailed draft regulatory framework to support the transition to full fibre broadband in the UK. Ofcom has proposed a series of measures to regulate BT for the period from 2021 to 2026, as well as promoting greater competition and investment in fibre in the UK by alternative network operators.
Ofcom, recognising that substantial investment in the UK's telecoms infrastructure is required to meet the growing and future demand for full fibre (or ultrafast broadband with speeds in excess of 300 Mbit/s), is seeking to establish a supportive regulatory framework that provides the necessary stability and certainty to promote investment. Ofcom's plans build on its existing measures – which include strengthened duct and pole access remedies (to reduce the cost of fibre network build) and the legal separation of Openreach from BT – and include further proposals which seek to reduce the cost of full fibre deployment:
- Flexible price regulation designed to encourage fibre investment – entry level residential superfast broadband services will remain price regulated, but Ofcom will allow Openreach additional flexibility for higher speeds (above 40Mbit/s) as well as to charge a premium for services delivered over full fibre.
- Rural areas – where competing fibre networks are not economically viable, Openreach will be able to recover its investment costs across the wholesale pricing of a wide range of products and services so as to reduce the investment risk. Ofcom is also working closely with the Government in relation to public funding with another £5bn planned investment.
- Access to BT's (Openreach) duct and poles (and dark fibre) – Ofcom proposes to maintain cost-based access to Openreach's physical infrastructure to encourage alternative fibre investment as this has the potential to cut significantly the cost of building fibre networks. Quality of service – in line with the legal separation of Openreach and ongoing monitoring, Ofcom maintains quality of service obligations governing repairs and installations to ensure Openreach meets the needs of its customers.
- Copper switch off - as fibre deployment gathers pace, Ofcom has set out plans to ensure a smooth transition from copper to fibre. In areas where Openreach has rolled out ultrafast broadband using full fibre or G-fast (which optimises the current fibre-to-the-cabinet superfast broadband provisioning to deliver speeds of up to 330 Mbit/s), Ofcom will remove regulation on Openreach's copper-based products and transfer regulation to fibre-based services.
- 5G – the proposals are also designed to support 5G investment with measures to regulate the provision of leased lines (high-speed connections) which are vital to support mobile backhaul.
The regulatory package is designed to ensure a stable and long-term approach to incentivise fibre network investment as we look ahead over the next decade (with specific proposals covering the period to 2026). Ofcom's consultation ends on 1 April 2020 and Ofcom plans to publish the final measures at the beginning of 2021.