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Vodafone Pooh-Poohs Ofcom's Dark Fiber Deal as 5G Looms

Iain Morris
5/24/2019
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Vodafone has slammed the latest proposals from UK regulatory authority Ofcom to provide better access to BT's Openreach network, raising the prospect of another drawn-out legal battle over broadband rules.

The UK operator said the proposals on "dark fiber" -- which would give BT's broadband rivals more control over Openreach's existing fiber connections -- did not go far enough.

"We support competition, but Ofcom's proposals to grant access to dark fiber only on the fringes while loosening its price controls on BT Openreach will mean businesses and the public sector paying more to meet their connectivity needs," said a Vodafone spokesperson in emailed comments. "Providing universal access to dark fiber now would give the UK the connectivity it needs, at a price everyone can afford."

"Sadly, this is another opportunity Ofcom has missed to plug the full fiber hole in the UK," he added.

The remarks came shortly after Ofcom said it would update other infrastructure rules so that any company could use Openreach's ducts and poles to build fiber networks. Previously, only service providers focused on residential and small business customers were allowed access, and not those targeting the enterprise sector or laying fiber as "backhaul" support for mobile data connections.

Vodafone is disgruntled because Ofcom will force Openreach to provide a dark fiber service only in parts of the country where there is no rival network. In these areas, Openreach will be made to offer dark fiber "at a price that reflects its costs," said Ofcom in a statement.

Ofcom appears to have backed away from plans to make dark fiber more widely available after opponents said this would dissuade companies from investing in new fiber infrastructure. Those opponents included BT as well as CityFibre, a much smaller fiber investor that is backed by Goldman Sachs and counts Vodafone as one of its biggest customers.

The latest developments threaten to upset the relationship between Vodafone and CityFibre, which is building a fiber network to support Vodafone's residential broadband services in UK cities.

That CityFibre network is still limited in scope and Vodafone's comments suggest the mobile operator will not take advantage of the new rules on duct and pole access to build its own fiber network.

Vodafone is trying to reduce expenses after earnings setbacks and costly spectrum auctions in major European markets. It is evidently concerned about the "backhaul" bill it could face with the launch of 5G services.

It has previously complained that wholesale products it currently gets from BT are expensive and give it insufficient control of network assets. With affordable access to Openreach's dark fiber, it would be able to install its own electronics and take charge of backhaul links.


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Ofcom failed in 2017 to make Openreach provide dark fiber services to other mobile operators when a UK court said the regulator's market definition was flawed, following a legal challenge from BT. The UK incumbent subsequently proposed introducing a restricted version of dark fiber, but it scrapped these plans in April after consultation with stakeholders.

"We are constrained in our access to dark fiber," said Scott Petty, Vodafone UK's chief technology officer, during a meeting with reporters last year. "Expensive access to fiber is a costly way to deploy 5G."

Openreach sounded much happier than Vodafone with the Ofcom proposals. "Our ducts and poles have been open to other companies since 2011, and we recognize that unrestricted access is a natural next step, so we had volunteered to get on with that, ahead of Ofcom's original schedule," said the company in a statement. "We welcome the greater clarity around dark fiber and the timeframe needed to deliver a fully functional product to market."

The operator said it would be considering the full range of proposals in more detail.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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