Ofcom, the communications regulator, hopes to accelerate the march of "superfast" broadband across the UK by demanding BT offer rivals access to its fibre network as well as its underground ducts and telegraph poles.
The regulator yesterday announced proposals that would allow BT's competitors to have access to the network of fibre optic cables, which will cover 40 per cent of homes by 2012.
Fibre offers broadband speeds that are significantly faster than over copper which makes up much of the existing network. Ofcom will not interfere in the price BT charges for access to its network. BT said it was already providing access to its fibre network, adding that the announcements "provide some of the regulatory clarity and certainty we have been asking".
The telecoms group will also have to open up its underground ducts and allow access to its telegraph poles for rivals to lay their own fibre, the regulator said. "BT has already said it is willing to open its ducts so the requirement we do so comes as no surprise," a spokeswoman said. "Duct access is unlikely to be the 'silver bullet' to get fibre to the countryside but all options should be explored."
The regulator will not be looking at a similar arrangement for Virgin Media, despite calls from BT for its fibre network to be opened up to rivals. "We only look at companies with a significant market power, and Virgin doesn't have that," Ofcom's chief executive, Ed Richards, said.
The UK is well behind Japan and South Korea, where over 90 per cent of the population have access to superfast broadband, but compares favourably with the US and most of its European peers. Coverage in America is about 35 per cent, with Germany close behind. France's coverage is slightly above 10 per cent, while Spain's is closer to 2 per cent.
Mr Richards dismissed a Cisco report from October which found that UK was a broadband laggard, languishing in 25th place worldwide. He said yesterday that it was "a very important moment for broadband in the UK," adding: "Superfast broadband is starting to be a reality in the UK, with very significant advances in recent months in the speeds some providers are offering." He said Ofcom's new regulatory framework was designed to support the next phase of development.
The issue of superfast broadband has become a political football in the run-up to the general election. On Monday, Gordon Brown said that the Government would bring superfast broadband speeds of 100Mb to everyone in Britain, making it "the world leader in the digital economy" by 2020.
The Government is to raise money to support the roll-out with a 50p-a-month levy on every phone landline or broadband connection. The Tories said they would use money from the BBC licence fee and promote market-led competition.
There has been some debate on what "superfast" actually means for broadband speeds. Mr Richards said that the regulator took it as anything above 24Mb.