So Rory “As bullets slammed into the wall above my head, the sheikh’s beautiful daughter…” Stewart is pushing “broadband” as part of the Big Society. Part of this is just grabbing credit for the achievements of the community broadband movement over the last 10 years, but there is content there. About 70% of the cost of deploying fibre to the home consists of civil works - essentially, trenching.
Therefore, the key variable is the trench mileage per customer. The urban geography of telecommunications can be counterintuitive; even if somewhere seems relatively sprawly, if you have a reasonable density of customers facing straight onto the street, they will pay for the extra miles. A denser population with lots of cul-de-sacs, though? Not so much. Susan Estrada’s team drawing up maps for the US National Broadband Plan ran into a lot of issues like this.
But what if we could use the trenches, ducts, and poles that are already there? In France, Portugal, and fairly soon in Australia, such measures are in force. Portugal Telecom and France Telecom have rate cards that offer price-regulated access to the so-called Layer Zero infrastructure. Anyone who wants to can run fibre-optic cable through it, and the national telecoms regulator has to agree to the rent. PTel already has thousands of route-kilometres of ducts with multiple users. In the US, “attachment” rights exist, but not for broadband Internet service because that’s not considered to be “telecoms” and therefore subject to the Federal Communications Commission’s authority - but Obama’s FCC chief, Julius Genachowski, is keen to change that.
To their credit, the Tories have wanted open access for some time. And the fit between the community broadband people and open access ought to be obvious. Further, a close reading of Stewart’s remarks suggests that open access might extend to public authorities; actually, it would be easier to achieve this than it would be to impose it on BT. One of the reasons why Paris is building a massive municipal fibre network is that the city of Paris owns nearly everything under the streets. A great start would be a Web site declaring all the ducts and rights-of-way the public sector owns.
But, as always, there’s a turd in the punchbowl.
The problem with open access is that BT (and perhaps Virgin Media, and the councils, etc, etc) has to play nicely. An OFCOM pilot study in 2008 showed that although most BT routes have space for more fibre, BT is hazy about what assets it has, and a significant percentage of the ducts are actually full of raw sewage. Seriously.
When Deutsche Telekom was ordered by the German regulator to let independent ISPs use its wires to provide DSL service, not much happened for ages. The regulator - the Federal Networks Agency - later accused them of “strategic incompetence”. Essentially, they had a policy of buggering up the requests they got. The job would take months. Files went missing. DTAG didn’t know which lines it had. So on and so forth. Veteran British Internet engineers and users will also recognise the pattern.
So you’d be a fool to invest in a layer-zero access project unless you could be sure that a tough, independent, competent regulator was looking out for your interests. One that already had the credibility that only action can build up. One that had, for example, already forced BT to create a separate open access division for the last mile assets.
But the Tories aren’t keen on OFCOM and would like to see it die. We can already see Rory waiting a long time on a Cumbrian hillside in the rain for the nice man from Openreach. Perhaps he should have married her.