Following the recent consultation on the Wholesale Local Access Market Review, Ofcom is now consulting on a revised duct and pole offer to be imposed on BT. A duct and pole requirement has been in place since 2010, however Ofcom is now proposing to enhance it by requiring BT to ensure that existing infrastructure is ‘ready for use’, that detailed maps are available, access seekers are given greater flexibility in terms of what the product can be used for and at the same time setting a cap on duct and pole rental charges. This all forms part of Ofcom's recent strategic shift to focus on removing potential barriers for providers other than BT to deploy fibre.
Improving on the existing offer
Despite being available for the last six years, there has been little-to-no uptake of the existing duct and pole product offered by BT. Access seekers complaints have included: inadequate space and problems with blockages, the lack of recent (and digital) maps of the infrastructure, high rental and ancillary prices, and too restrictive conditions on what the product can be used for. With these new proposals, Ofcom is attempting to alleviate many of these concerns by making it easier for interested parties to make use of the product, with the ultimate aim of targeting a higher deployment of 'full fibre' (fibre to the home or premise).
Of all the proposals, the two that are most likely to raise eyebrows are the relaxing of the usage restrictions and the adjustments to prices. At the moment the product can only be used for reaching end-users with broadband. The suggestion now is that non-broadband services could also be provided. Providers of business connectivity products, or leased lines, would be most concerned about this change in use, however Ofcom considers the likely effect to be minimal, at least during the period the market review covers. While the use of the product for mobile backhaul usage is possible, it would have to be as part of a mixed use deployment and any long distance backhaul remains prohibited.
The price of access to BT's ducts and poles has always been a sticking point. The current prices are subject to a ‘basis of charges’ condition which requires that prices are reasonably derived from the costs of provision. Ofcom's own research suggests that prices generally compare favourably to other EU countries, even in those where use of the product has been much greater. However there is some concern that prices set this way would make longer term investments difficult as access seekers would have insufficient certainty around future prices. The consultation due in the summer will shed more light here.
The consultation closes on 15 June 2017, and Ofcom expects to publish final decisions in early 2018, with new rules taking effect on 1 April 2018. The consultation on rental charges for accessing its duct network is expected to follow in the next few months.