Opening up our infrastructure

Matt Dexter, head of client partnerships, Openreach, discusses why opening up the company’s ducts can help put UK in IP pole position.

I’ve talked a lot in this column about the huge digital transformation that is currently underway. Just this last month, we announced a further 86 exchange locations across the country – covering half a million premises – where we’re planning to stop selling legacy copper-based services and start migrating people to Fibre to the Premises (FTTP). That brings the grand total of ‘stop sell’ exchanges to 379 – a whopping 3.4m premises.

But we still have a long way to go with some 14 million lines – including the now ageing traditional landline telephone service – needing to switch to digital in just four years’ time.
Of course, we’re not the only builders in town and if we’re going to get to a point where we can think about retiring the old copper network then we need everyone’s shoulder to the wheel.

But building a fibre network is difficult, time consuming and costly. However, as the incumbent operator with by far the biggest reach of any network – we can help speed the process along by opening up our infrastructure to others to use themselves through our Physical Infrastructure Access (PIA) product.
Openreach first launched PIA (also known as Duct and Pole Access) in 2011, however, public appetite and financial investment were still lacking to underpin scale use and Communication Provider (CP) uptake was slow.

A new PIA offer

Fast forward 8 years… with growing demand from businesses and homes for All IP Solutions, government’s commitment to a full fibre UK and pro competition policies, coupled with favourable changes to the regulatory environment, Openreach launched a new PIA reference offer in April 2019.

This brought vast advances to ordering and pricing, with support from Openreach to clear blockages and create space on poles to make infrastructure ready for CP use through network adjustments. Later in 2019, we evolved the user terms from being primarily for NGA services to unrestricted, meaning CPs are permitted to use our ducts and poles.
As a result, we’ve seen an explosion in new entrants, uptake and user stories. Going from 22 CPs to 132 in just over two years and increasing planned build from a couple of thousand kilometres of duct and a handful of poles to 34.5km duct and 283k poles. There is now PIA build going on in every corner of the UK and services delivered for every consumer and business flavour.

There are CPs concentrating on commercial point to point offerings, mobile, local government, building new, extending existing and everything in between but they all have one thing in common- PIA is a great, cost effective way to deliver their ambitions.

As we continue to evolve the proposition, there’s a greater requirement for speed and reliability – as well as the need to ensure there’s no undue discrimination and CP information is kept confidential from other parts of our organisation. So, we have stood up hundreds of people, separated from the rest of our business to only work with PIA with regular reporting to industry and Ofcom.

Trusted partnerships

To support CPs to go faster, we’re building trusted partnerships in order that they can manage Network Adjustments without the need for validation and we’re proud that the number of CPs achieving this status (Path To Collaboration, or PTC) is growing quarter on quarter. Up from just two CPs 18 months ago to 22 this quarter, the numbers illustrate customers’ commitment to quality in their builds and the learning and development they invest in.

With increased activity, there are inevitably increasing risks to existing equipment, services, operatives and the public and we work closely with our PIA partners to minimise these. We’re keen that everyone using the network share the ethos that we’re all the guardians of it and responsible to put safety at the heart of everything we do and protect existing while building for the long term. To support CPs with quality and safety, we run forums with safety experts and training partners, with Industry taking initiative to hold additional events to promote safe practices and share near misses. We regularly audit PIA builds as we do with our own, sharing damage reports through the same systems to ensure continuity and consistency.

We’re continuously develop training requirements to respond to CPs unique needs while ensuring that everyone has the right skills to do the work they’re undertaking through accreditation and exhaustive engineering standards.

We are committed to ensure PIA underpins our CPs success but we appreciate there’s still lots to do. Thus, over the coming months, our attention is on rolling out our scale proposal and deliver a full b2b gateway to support larger builds and reduce administrative work. We continue to invest in proof of concepts and we’re excited to continue our engagement with CPs to capture and respond to feedback to find ever more effective ways to use the product and evolve the proposition to respond to the growing demand.

But, with all the progress we’ve made, the proof of the PIA pudding is in the eating and the signs are positive. Earlier in the year operator Virgin told how their rollout of new FTTP network in Swandicote, Derbyshire, had been completed ‘much faster than would otherwise have been possible’ – going from planning to delivery in just four months, by using our ducts and poles. They also pointed to the fact that PIA can result in ‘significant cost savings’.

All our clients have the choice of whether to buy products from our IP portfolio, but what PIA has enabled through the various Ofcom charge controls and the products evolution is a different way of achieving Openreach and the government’s goal of having a full fibre UK, and hopefully proving unequivocally that we are indeed ‘OPEN’reach.

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