Are we about to see the start of true fiber-based broadband access competition in the UK?

Iain Morris, International Editor

October 2, 2014

4 Min Read
TalkTalk's Small Fiber Beginnings

TalkTalk is desperate to prove that -- despite its name -- it isn't all hot air.

In April, the UK broadband operator unveiled an ambitious plan with partners BSkyB and CityFibre to build an ultra-fast broadband network in the city of York and cross swords with BT in the market for fiber-based services. Amid doubts about the consortium's ability to seriously challenge the fixed-line incumbent, Charles Bligh, TalkTalk's managing director, has been eager to silence his critics. "We're putting our money where our mouths are in doing this," he told attendees at the recent Ultra-Broadband (UBB) Forum in London.

Like other companies that rose to prominence when copper local loops were being unbundled, TalkTalk is miffed that authorities have not been tougher on BT when it comes to fiber. Earlier this year, it complained to Ofcom, the UK's telecoms regulator, that BT's wholesale prices are too high for it to make a profit in the fiber retail market. So far, however, BT has dodged more punitive rules, passing 'margin squeeze' tests that Ofcom has recently carried out.

Along with BSkyB, then, TalkTalk has a clear incentive to build its own fiber access network and sever some of the ties that bind it uncomfortably to BT. Piggybacking on a metro network owned by CityFibre, TalkTalk and BSkyB are each investing £5 million (US$8.1 million) in the development of fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) technology that will connect some 20,000 homes in York. The two operators -- each of which will own a third of the joint venture, with CityFibre controlling the rest -- intend to start offering commercial services at speeds of up to 1 Gbit/s in 2015.

Even so, Bligh is under no illusions about the difficulty of the task ahead. TalkTalk has no prior experience of digging up streets, as he acknowledged at the UBB Forum, and it will need to contain costs and capture plenty of new customers if the venture is to succeed. In blunt terms, if the cost per home passed rises above £500, or fewer than 6,000 homes (30% of those covered) take up an FTTP service, the project may be in jeopardy.

This subscriber target looks particularly challenging. In Cornwall, where BT has been deploying fiber in partnership with the government, the take-up rate was reported to have hit 25% of homes passed in April, and TalkTalk could encounter fiber competition on several fronts. Even if 6,000 homes took up a fiber service, the cost per connected home would be an eye-watering £1,667. Moreover, in the retail market, TalkTalk will have to lock horns with joint venture partner BSkyB as well as wholesale customers attracted to its rates, which will presumably undercut BT's.

Yet there are factors working in TalkTalk's favor. For a start, CityFibre's existing "metro layer," as Bligh describes it, should allow the joint-venture partners to roll out their FTTP network relatively quickly. TalkTalk's research also indicates there is considerable enthusiasm in the local community and, indeed, the political arena for high-speed connectivity. Above all, perhaps, TalkTalk has years of experience in marketing itself as a broadband alternative to BT, reporting six consecutive quarters of revenue growth despite difficult circumstances.

But TalkTalk is not planning on stopping at York. "Our aim is very much to get to between 50% and 60% of UK households with this rollout over time," said Bligh at the UBB Forum, and the operator has previously flagged plans to launch FTTP services in two other cities (whose identities it has yet to reveal). Far from being a mere thorn in the side of BT, the move by TalkTalk, BSkyB and CityFibre "strikes at the very heart" of the incumbent, according to market-research firm Enders Analysis, "much… as BT struck at the heart of Sky in bidding for sports rights."

In Spain and parts of Eastern Europe, incumbents' unwillingness to offer affordable wholesale products has already given a spur to infrastructure-based competition. Could the same thing be happening in the UK? Right now, the York scheme may not sound like much, but -- to borrow a famous movie line -- big things have small beginnings. (See Fiber Sizzles in Spain as Orange Targets Jazztel and Eastern Europe's Flourishing Fiber Scene.)

— Iain Morris, Site Editor, Ultra-Broadband

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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