UK going underground for broadband

The UK government's far-reaching department covering digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) has started an industry consultation period about ATI (access to infrastructure) regulations that have been in place since 2016.

The idea being kicked around is that broadband providers, through an ATI review, can more easily embark on passive infrastructure-sharing agreements with utility companies and telco businesses other than Openreach, BT's infrastructure arm.

Although this is exactly what ATI regulations were designed to do, DCMS thinks they're not working and holding back "digital" Britain. This, it says, amounts to a missed opportunity.

The government department ruefully pointed out that civil works, particularly the installation of ducts and poles, can account for an 80% chunk of the cost to deliver new "gigabit-capable" broadband networks. And since there's about 1 million kilometers of underground utility ducts spanning the UK's electricity, gas, water and sewer networks – according to DCMS figures – it obviously makes sense to use them where possible.

To support its case for an ATI review, DCMS flagged research from the National Infrastructure Commission. The commission thinks infrastructure reuse of this sort could lead to an £8 billion (US$10 billion) cost saving for companies deploying "gigabit-capable" broadband.

Warman on warpath
Matt Warman, minister for digital infrastructure, seemed to think ATI reform was a no-brainer if it meant broadband providers could trim their infrastructure investment.

"It makes both economic and common sense for firms rolling out gigabit broadband to make use of the infrastructure that already exists across the country," he said. "This will help them avoid the high costs and disruption of having to dig or build their own and ultimately benefit consumers."

Warman flagged what he saw as a number of potential barriers to using ATI regulations. One was opaqueness on how to make applications for infrastructure access. Another was a "lack of central coordination or single information point to help increase transparency and streamline the process."

Other perceived ATI weaknesses include fuzziness over changing structures and lengthy dispute-resolution times.

DCMS' industry consultation period on possible ATI reforms ends September 4.

— Ken Wieland, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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