By Simon Woodhead
As you may have seen in today’s news, Simwood Networks, a subsidiary we formed last year, has been proposed by Ofcom for Code Powers. I hesitate to say ‘got’ Code Powers as this stage could fail but experience suggests the hard part is behind us.
So what are Code Powers? The electronic communications code is set out in the Communications Act and confers rights which greatly facilitate operating communications networks. These include vastly simplified planning requirements for siting equipment (e.g. poles, duct and cabinets) on public land and substantial powers to grease the wheels of doing the same on private land.
It isn’t exactly an exclusive club nowadays, but as an infrastructure based network operator, it is an essential arrow in our quiver. We don’t intend digging up your street any time soon but if we need to, doing so is now a lot easier!
As an operator of a large existing network, we already light fibre in the ground. We co-own a 44km ring around London data centres, and we have our own around Manchester data centres. Code Powers, and associated enablements we’ve completed more privately, let us take that to the next level.
Whilst not directly connected to the Simwood network, I also have a few kilometres of ducted dark fibre around my mountain (the exaggerated bump in Wales many of you know me to live on). Why? Well, there’s an element of ‘because’ of course but mostly because it is future-proof and distance isn’t a constraint. My gate for example enjoys a faultless 10Gb it doesn’t need, but is genuinely too far for twisted pair. You’d also be amazed how useful 40Gb to the barn can be, and how reassuring having a redundant 40Gb ring between the front and the back of the house is! It isn’t 100Gb yet but being dark fibre, lighting n x 40Gb over the same fibre is easy, and 100Gb is simply a question of economic justification – nothing needs digging up. Of course, I also didn’t just put one fibre core in the ground!
Other than me geeking out, there’s a genuine point here: fibre in the ground is future-proof, performant and economic. The economic point doesn’t come into it for my mountain beyond initial cost but when operating a network you make a few choices. You can either own the fibre or lease fibre, and then light it with n waves, buy individual pre-lit waves over someone else’s, or buy managed circuits (layer2/ethernet/mpls) generally contended on waves across it. From left to right you trade CAPEX for OPEX and total control for the consumption of service with no control whatsoever. I’m an infrastructure snob and we like control so face-palm at ‘award-winning’ (self-nominated of course!) networks simply stringing together layer2 circuits over an actual network. Maybe I should enter my gate into such awards… Alas, focus Simon!
More seriously, abundant fibre at both the backhaul level and for the last mile is essential for our economy to progress, especially in digitally deprived parts of the country. That isn’t just our view but that of many progressive networks. Given we already work with most of them (the altnets) in some form (wholesale voice and connectivity or partner voice services), we already have exposure and sensitivities there. We take those sensitivities and responsibilities seriously and have no intention to over-build any of our customers, but BT have neglected the entire country here by global standards so there remains opportunity at both wholesale and retail, where we can contribute to the shared ambition.
Or at least there was! Keep in mind we applied for Code Powers in late 2020, it isn’t a new thing. Since then, you’ll have seen our recent response to Ofcom on Openreach’s Equinox loyalty scheme which completely changes the game. We’ve made our views on the destructive nature of it very clear. I think it is the most counter-productive, oligopolistic, anti-competitive prospective regulatory green-light we’ve seen since, well, Ofcom’s previous consultation which led suspiciously rapidly to disgusting origin surcharges! We now need to see the Equinox consultation conclude before we can be decisive with our plans and are hopeful (but not optimistic) that this will be a consultation where the views expressed actually shape the outcome.