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Monday, May 01, 2023

A critical enabler for broadband competition - Marketplaces for buying and selling open access FTTP

This post originally appeared on Apr 18 on my LinkedIn feed, which is now my main platform for both short posts and longer-form articles. It can be found here, along with the comment stream. Please follow / subscribe to receive regular updates (about 1-3 / week)

Following yesterday's post on mobile #neutralhost operators as aggregators for wholesale access to municipality-level #smallcells and assets/permits, I think something roughly similar is happening in #FTTP.

An aggregation & marketplace tier for #ISPs, #AltNets and #infracos is emerging, among the UK fixed #broadband market's various groups:

- Incumbents with wholesale & retail units, although in theory separated - BT Retail & OpenReach, and VMO2 (Virgin) with its new wholesale JV Nexfibre (with Liberty Global & Infravia)
- AltNets with their own FTTP infrastructure solely for their own ISP retail services, eg Hyperoptic
- AltNets with FTTP for both inhouse ISP retail and wholesale to others
- Wholesale-only FTTP providers such as CityFibre
- Retail-only ISPs, such as Zen & TalkTalk, which buy wholesale fibre (and historically copper / FTTC)

The wholesale market is expanding rapidly, with infracos still building, Openreach accelerating (and trying to discount with its contentious Equinox 2 plan) and existing AltNets looking to supplement slow conversion of homes-passed to homes-connected by offering access to other ISPs.

But the patchwork quilt of wholesale FTTP is very messy. There is growing overbuild, lots of "passed" homes that need extra work to get to individual buildings (or inside them to flats), a mishmash of vendors and construction practices, variable-quality networks and processes - and ongoing consolidation and possible financial woes.

This brings a need for aggregation & simplification. There is both a "buy" and a "sell" side here.

Retail ISPs want access to well-defined and standardised wholesale fibre access, across multiple FTPP owners - both major players like Openreach and AltNets. They want to sell consistent products to end-customers, with promises on provisioning "live next Tuesday at 11am" or ways to deal with faults. They don't want 50 integration projects - but they do want good pricing.

The AltNets, meanwhile, want to be able to sell to those ISPs, even if they've built IT systems and processes that weren't originally designed for wholesale. They also need to conform to Ofcom's new one-touch-switching rules.

Maybe I'll think of a snappier term, but given that the #ConnectedNorth conference took place in Manchester, the term Open Access Solution as a Service, or #OASaaS, seems rather fitting...

There are already a number of OASaaS contenders. Some AltNets formed the Common Wholesale Platform | CWP in 2020. CityFibre is working on its own ecosystem, with Toob as its first partner. There's also The Fibre Café, Vitrifi & BroadbandHub - as well as TOTSCo which is purely focused on the one-touch switching process. Not all seem to focus equally on buy and sell sides.

I wonder if agreed standards or specs (or even regulation) are needed. Perhaps an equivalent to JOTS (Joint Operator Technical Specification) for shared/mobile infrastructure such as neutral host systems? We don't want OASaaS to look back in anger...