Is Dark Fibre the answer for 5G?

5 Jun 2019

The promise of 5G is not in doubt.  Downloading a video in seconds, instantaneous connection, vast data capacity.  Business and leisure applications are limitless. The handset manufactures are well on the way to delivering 5G phones into the market and there is no shortage of demand.  On this otherwise bright landscape, however, there is a significant cloud – and that is the lack of fibre infrastructure to carry the gigantic quantities of data associated with the service.

Or is there a potential solution?  Openreach already has an installed network covering much of the UK – and particularly the exchange-to-exchange routes that are difficult and costly to install. Not only does Openreach have its live links, it also owns significant unused capacity in the form of currently unused fibre optic cables – known as dark fibre.

Government has been trying for some time to address this issue by compelling Openreach to allow access to its dark fibre network and a decision on the proposals set out in Ofcom’s Business Connectivity Market Review (BCMR) is due any day.

Not entirely surprisingly, the mobile network operators are ultra-keen on this solution. Dark fibre access (DFA) allows Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to install their own equipment at either end, giving them flexibility, reducing duplication of equipment and speeding up access to the bandwidth required for 5G networks.

However, the new network builders, busy investing in alternative fibre provision, are less enthusiastic, suggesting that allowing free access to Openreach’s network would discourage investment in the construction of new networks.

Which has left the development of the 5G network in the UK in something of a limbo.

Having had its original proposals defeated by a legal challenge, Ofcom’s revised BCMR has been out for consultation with the implementation of its recommendations scheduled for “spring 2019”.

Unrestricted duct access is almost certain to be introduced.  Access to the duct and pole infrastructure is already assured for networks focusing primarily on the residential market, but the clear recommendation now is that access to physical infrastructure will be allowed for all.

This is a change, allowing mobile network builders to use BT ducts to pull through fibres to serve 5G base stations, while providers of residential broadband will benefit hugely from access to poles. 

Less clarity surrounds the proposals for DFA.  Ofcom is proposing a tiered structure of access arrangements, depending on the degree of competition that currently exists. 

The intention is to allow access, at fixed cost, to Dark Fibre where there is no competition to BT.

Cheers from the mobile phone operators, who regard this access as essential to building 5G networks, and in the short term this is probably a pragmatic solution to stimulate the roll-out of 5G technology.  In the longer term, whether this is the best solution is more of a debatable point.

Openreach talks about the risk to its network from unrestricted access to its unlit fibre, while other fibre network investors – Virgin Media, KCom and CityFibre - argue that DFA will dissuade operators from building their own networks which in the long term will stifle innovation and the development of a competitive free market.

However, it’s hard to ignore the increasingly loud frustration of mobile operators who universally regard dark fibre access as essential and it looks very likely that Dark Fibre Access will be implemented this year.

Potentially allowing for 5G roll-out. On time.  Almost. 

Sources:  Business Connectivity Market Review (Ofcom)

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