Local fibre broadband projects need common standards so they can offer a choice of internet providers to their communities.
That’s the advice from Labour MP Chi Onwurah and former BT Openreach head Steve Robertson to the House of Lords communications committees.
They claim that community broadband projects are in danger of becoming ‘digital islands’ because they have to both own the fibre network and be the ISP.
Instead, there should be a common standard so local groups can own the fibre network but invite ISPs like TalkTalk, Sky or even BT to compete for customers with broadband, TV and phone offers.
Robertson pointed to the example of the Digital Region project, built across South Yorkshire with more than with more than £100m of public funds.
Now the project is looking for a commercial owner because it’s running on borrowed time after failing to win enough customers to cover its costs.
Robertson said national ISPs are asking BT Openreach to extend its fibre network in competition with Digital Region because it’s too expensive to integrate with their own services.
And with 30,000km of ‘last mile’ connections to make between users’ homes and the nearest fibre access point, Onwurah suggested common standards would help Britons to copy Sweden and Finland by digging their own connections.
The shadow minister for business, innovation and skills, was formerly head of telecoms technology at Ofcom.
She recommends a standard called Active Line Access, which makes it possible for anyone to connect their premises or community network to a national infrastructures like BT Openreach.
She said Fujitsu – which is competing with BT for Broadband Delivery UK funds – has agreed to use Active Line if it wins any BDUK contracts, but BT has yet to sign up.
Both Robertson and Onwurah told the committee that the government needs to smooth out the legal obstacles to covering the last mile to users’ homes.
A major benefit could come from simplifying ‘wayleaves’ – legal agreements to run cables across or under land which gets in the way that’s owned by a local authority or private landlord.
Regulations could also be relaxed on overhead cables via poles, which currently only BT Openreach can install, and on the use of ducts owned by BT and utility companies.
Onwurah also recommended that new houses should have underground ducts ready for fibre, although the recession means there isn’t enough new housing for it to have a big impact.