Local fibre broadband needs common standards

Laying rural fibre

Local projects to roll out fibre broadband in mainly rural and remote communities might not be financially viable, unless they can offer a choice of telecoms and internet service providers, a Lords committee was told.

Speaking to the House of Lords Communications Committee, Labour Shadow Business Minister Chi Onwurah and former BT Openreach chief Steve Robertson said that community project to connect faster broadband to remote parts of the UK could become "digital islands", as they would both own the fibre network and be the ISP.

They urged common standards so that local groups could still own the network but would then invite ISPs to compete with each other to offer customers broadband, phone lines or TV.

Robertson said that in the Digital Region project in South Yorkshire, where more than 100 million has been spent, that project was now looking for a commercial owner as it failed to find enough customers to cover costs.

He added that UK ISPs had asked BT Openreach to extend its network into areas where Digital Region operates, as it was too expensive to integrate their own services onto Digital Region's fibre network.

Onwurah said common standards, such as Active Line Access, would make it possible for a community fibre project to connect to national infrastructure such as BT's. She added this common standard would encourage projects here to copy Scandinavian countries, where people dug their own connections.

Ohwurah, former head of telecoms technology at regulator Ofcom said that Fujitsu, which competes with BT for Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) funds, has agreed to use Active Line Access in any contract it wins, but BT has yet to sign up.

Ohwaruh also warned that BT should not be allowed to monopolise fibre broadband and the UK was "sleepwalking into another monopoly" and said competition by Virgin Media was not enough to halt the possible BT dominance.

"BT must be made to understand that if superfast broadband is a monopoly, they will not be allowed to enjoy it," Onwurah told the Lords' committee. "I think structural separation is something we are going to have to look at," she said. "It's a significant intervention and BT would rightly complain but monopoly provision of superfast broadband just isn't an acceptable option."

She added: "The government is doing so much to get competition into the NHS where nobody really wants it, and doing so little to get competition into telecoms where everybody agrees it is the best way."

She urged Ofcom to encourage more competition. "Ofcom need to make clear that they are committed to competition in superfast broadband."

Rene Millman

Rene Millman is a freelance writer and broadcaster who covers cybersecurity, AI, IoT, and the cloud. He also works as a contributing analyst at GigaOm and has previously worked as an analyst for Gartner covering the infrastructure market. He has made numerous television appearances to give his views and expertise on technology trends and companies that affect and shape our lives. You can follow Rene Millman on Twitter.