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An Exploration of what Open-Access means for Broadband

The telecoms industry is awash with a sense of ambivalence for its future. In one dimension, what lies ahead is a fascinating convergence of cutting-edge technologies, each with the power to break down today’s barriers. In another, more grounded dimension, the future is rife with a struggle to stay afloat.

As consumers, our affinity with the Internet is blossoming, driving us to desire more for less. But, in proverbial terms, this trend means telecoms operators are receiving the short end of the stick. While the rate of data traffic growth across fixed and mobile networks has shattered even the most flamboyant projections, revenue from this traffic is under a constant state of erosion.

This is not a sustainable business model. Continued investment in telecoms infrastructure cannot scale to meet unprecedented expectations in the absence of new methods to monetise customer interaction with an operator’s network.

The Ins and Outs of an Open-Access Network

An open-access network is a solution to the above woes. This architecture radically simplifies the business model that underpins broadband delivery by introducing a common and shareable platform that is disaggregated from the services which run atop it.

Before proceeding, however, it is important to understand this open-access model in practice. Imagine a road network, where the underlying physical infrastructure is owned, controlled and invested in by one company. Vehicles, from cars to buses, can share the road in an equal manner. No specific vehicles gain priority during congestion, and each is subject to a toll charge.

It is this example of a road network that encapsulates what open-access means for broadband delivery. At the most basic level, there is one horizontally integrated network which is owned and operated by a single company, who bears responsibility for maintenance and ensuring equal access is provided to retailers.

There is no overlap in function between the network operator and retailers, meaning the two different layers do not compete. This feature prevents companies from developing an unfair competitive advantage.

Retailers are the customers of the network operator, providing services such as triple-play.

Open-Access is Diverse and Versatile  

Beyond the aforementioned two-layered open-access model, there is also a three-layered one. In a three-layer model, there is a distinction between the company that builds and owns the network infrastructure and the company that is tasked with operating and maintaining it. The latter model is often chosen by governments for state-backed intervention to address a lack of broadband availability.

Fibre at the edge cries out for Open-Access

Fibre is blazing a trail of triumph in the telecoms industry right now. There are three stages or chains of Passive Optical Networks (PONs) onto which the open-access model can be applied, with each stage being defined by its function and proximity to end-users.

Last mile networks are becoming a focus of the industry as legacy, copper-based xDSL to the customer premises is being replaced by fibre. Middle mile networks, which connect localised last mile infrastructure to an operator’s core network and the Internet’s backbone, have been based on fibre for quite some time.

An open-access model can be adopted in both last and middle mile networks, and even with dark fibre. By creating a common and unified network that multiple players can contribute to, it is significantly more cost-effective over the long term to introduce fibre.

The Hurdles standing in the way of Open-Access

Despite the allure of an open-access model for broadband, the path to adoption remains riddled with challenge.

Without a doubt, the loftiest challenge standing in the way of open-access is the attraction of retailers, and more specifically, difficulty in doing so. Large incumbent operators that have their own parallel networks are often unwilling to work with new open-access infrastructure, preferring to wait for smaller, regional providers to join the network and act as guinea pigs.

This raises a point of paramount importance with open-access networks - the establishment of trust and a reputation for quality. Without these fundamental pillars, retailers will be unwilling to join the network, leading to a lack of choice for consumers and a competition vacuum in the market.

Conclusion: The Future of Broadband is Open and Collaborative

Open-Access is an uplifting embodiment of the fact that the telecoms industry can achieve more when it works together, not less. With the creation of a multi-layered model in which each layer is dependent on another, there is an inherent compulsion to collaborate and tackle issues, producing a better experience for consumers.

By fostering a diverse ecosystem of retailers, consumers can relish in the benefits of a competitive market, sustaining innovation and differentiation of services. As a result, whether an open-access model is composed of two or three layers or utilised for the middle mile or last mile of a network, the same underlying advantages will prevail - for consumers, operators and retailers.

Posted on 3 Jul 2019.

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