Ofcom will today announce an investigation into whether the roll-out of next generation broadband can be accelerated by using existing utilities infrastructure, such as the trenches that play host to the water network.
The idea of reusing existing holes in the ground, to reduce the £15bn projected cost of building a national fibre network from scratch, has been mooted throughout the glacial next generation broadband debate.
Ofcom is now looking seriously at infrastructure sharing, however, after its French counterpart found it more plausible than first thought. New regulations across the Channel mean France Telecom is now set to lay fibre in the same ducts as its competitors.
The communications regulator's chief executive Ed Richards will tell the Institution of Engineering and Technology today: "We will also be asking whether there is scope to secure commercially viable access for fibre deployment through the primary infrastructure networks of other utilities such as water and energy.
"We must be sure we are not missing a big trick here. We know that a lot of the costs are in the civil engineering and this is civil engineering of a very similar kind."
Anthony Walker, CEO of the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG), a consortium of operators and technology vendors, welcomed the move. "Civil engineering accounts for in excess of 50 per cent of the costs of a national fibre network."
"The French found they had more shareable ducting than they were expecting. It may not be viable in the UK," Walker said, "but as the [next generation access] debate becomes more detailed it's timely to look in to it."
Ofcom's survey will be conducted in partnership with the Caio Review, the government's own probe into how to make UK internet infrastructure competitive with 100Mbit/s build-outs in other EU countries, the US and the Far East.
The probe comes as calls for the UK to invest in a fast fibre to the premises network are growing louder. The boom in web video is prompting mainstream fears that the growth of IP communications could be hamstrung by the aged copper wires that connect most homes and businesses.
Alongside the work on water and energy infrastructure utilities, Ofcom will also survey the duct networks owned by BT and other telecoms operators. "We need to establish what the position is here and whether or not duct access has a role to play in the development of competitive next-generation access," Richards will argue.
The survey will sample the telecoms infrastructure in rural, suburban and urban environments.
Any bid to open up telecoms duct networks to competitors' engineers would likely be politically fraught and complex to administer, but the desire to advance fibre investment seems to trump such concerns. Richards will say in his speech: "We are well aware that there are significant issues related to this in the broader telecoms market and that careful consideration will need to be given to these, alongside the results of the survey."
BT's new CEO Ian Livingston has begun his tenure by making it clear that BT has no intention of building a national fibre network unless it gets something in return from Ofcom. He's pushing for restrictions on what it can charge for line rental to be relaxed and to be allowed to ditch its universal service obligation (USO). BT says it's unfair that the USO would force it to maintain both the old copper network and a new fibre infrastructure. ®