UK plans are afoot to phase out copper network by 2027

© BT

© BT

  • Phased switch off envisaged to coincide with broadband provision 
  • Difficult and less profitable rural areas to be shared out equitably
  • Consumers and businesses will get two years in which to switch

Sky News yesterday breathlessly reported ‘secret talks’ underway between the UK government, Ofcom, BT and other UK operators to execute a staggered ‘switch-off’ of the UK’s copper network in conjunction with a fibre build shared by all the UK fibre builders. Such talks are probably more confidential than secret, I should have thought, as it’s been clear for some time that a ‘deal’ or deals with network operators to accelerate fibre build were under way after Prime Minister Boris Johnson had used a commitment to action on broadband provision to signal his government’s ‘get up and go’ attitude to Brexit and the prospects for the UK economy in its wake. 

Aligning yourself politically with the ‘white heat of technology’ or ‘the race to 5G’ has now become a standard move in the political playbook and the UK’s telecoms players were quick to sense an opportunity. 

BT’s then newish CEO, Philip Jansen, indicated that BT had plans to help with Johnson’s pledge to fibre the whole country by 2025, gently pointing out that doubling the rate of network build would ideally require a change in BT’s regulated rate of return (for the better, from BT’s point of view) and that would require the agreement of Ofcom. 

“It is a national mission now,” The Financial Times reported Jansen as saying at a BT results presentation. “We need the government and Ofcom to take quick and decisive action to make this happen.”

Reports say Jansen’s “national mission” now involves a series of understandings between BT, the other operators and the government involving a final copper switch-off date in early  2027 with that deadline acting as an inducement to homeowners and businesses to adopt new broadband services, thus apparently just about meeting the government’s pledge to fibre the UK for broadband by 2025.

Sky News said it understood that full fibre replacement of copper networks will happen on a region-by-region basis with consumers and businesses being given two years in each area of the country to move their service to a new full-fibre provider. And there would be a mechanism to fairly share out the less profitable, more ‘complex to dig through’, rural areas. 

One potential political weakness in a plan like this is surely that citizens in an area drawing a short straw condemning them to broadband services served near the end of the phased process, are bound to kick up a fuss about it. No doubt this and many more issues remain to be argued through. 

There is reported to be a meeting today of all the interested parties and government figures, including the departing chief executive of Ofcom, Sharon White. 

But already it’s not all sweetness and light. CityFibre, perhaps the most vigorous competitor in terms of fibre deployment, bemoans what it calls Ofcom’s exclusive focus on BT Openreach as the vehicle for migration from copper to fibre. It maintains that retiring the copper network needs to be managed in a way that promotes competition, benefiting every builder of fibre networks, rather than simply reinforcing BT Openreach’s existing market dominance. Consumers should have the power to switch to any full fibre network, it claims.

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