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Ofcom casts doubt on future of fibre

UK regulator launches consultation looking at next-generation broadband, signalling that fibre-to-the-home is not necessarily the way forward.

Telecoms regulator Ofcom has restarted debate over the way forward for broadband, pouring water on the notion that fibre to the doorstep is the only option for delivering high-speed data services to the nation.

The regulator has launched a consultation on the issue to investigate the technologies on offer and assess the benefits of their rollout.

In the consultation, Ofcom notes that market and infrastructure conditions in the UK are very different to those countries where investment in fibre optics has already been strong.

Whereas the rollout of fibre optics in other countries was driven by pay TV services, the report highlights the UK's relatively mature pay TV market and the high speeds of its current broadband offerings. British surfers may disagree with Ofcom's definition of "high speed", which currently counts anything from 512Kb/sec upwards.

In countries where fibre is advancing fastest, there are also relatively higher population densities where people are, on average, closer to the exchange, according to Ofcom.

Instead of fibre optics, Ofcom suggests that next-generation networks may be based on 21CN upgrades to BT's existing copper access network, or improvements to Virgin Media's cable network, or even a completely new deployment of wired or wireless infrastructure - although it declines to expand on what this may be.

Whatever the outcome, Ofcom says it favours a market-led deployment.

"Investment in next generation access will represent a substantial commercial risk and the market should decide where and when it will be made," says Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards.

"We want to ensure there are no barriers to investment and provide a clear regulatory environment which will help encourage investment. But we also want to ensure that the benefits of competition which consumers have enjoyed with current generation broadband can also be achieved as we move to higher speed next generation access."

The proposals are detailed in Future broadband - Policy approach to next generation access.

The consultation closes on 5 December 2007.

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