Free up fibre – Vodafone calls for equal access
Vodafone has called on European regulators to ensure that non-incumbent-owned mobile network operators have access to fibre backhaul on the same terms and conditions as their in-house operators or face a declining competitive ecosystem.
The call stems from a looming shortfall in microwave capacity and prohibitive pricing of incumbents’ fibre, poles and ducts to cope with the fast-rising volume of data traffic.
Research by Analysys Mason commissioned by Vodafone found that incumbent operators favour their in-house mobile operators when it comes to accessto a fibre-based backhaul. “These inputs are not always made available to competing operators as a wholesale or retail product with the desired interface, quality, speed or price.
“The fact that the required inputs are not available, or are extremely expensive, may dampen competition in the mobile market in some countries because the fixed incumbent operator is usually (with the exception of the UK) also a major mobile operator and can gain benefits as a result of this vertical integration – specifically the much greater capillarity of its fibre network,” it said.
The leased line market, in which the mobile operators are a large segment, contributed £2bn/y to BT’s £18bn turnover, the researcher found.
Ben Wreschner, who leads Vodafone’s regulatory economics section, said all Vodafone wants is access on equal terms and conditions as the in-house mobile operator. He said Vodafone accepted that there couldn’t be a single price across Europe, if only because labour prices differ. Instead he called for a harmonised approach to access to fibre for mobile backhaul.
He called on the European Commission to provide guidance to BEREC, the European telecoms arch-regulator, for directives that national regulatory agencies (NRAs) can implement to give effect to this.
The study showed that independent mobile operators use microwave extensively to backhaul their traffic. But they are running out of spectrum. The shift to small cells for LTE traffic is quickly eating up the available capacity. Vodafone’s preliminary report for 2014 revealed that 4G smartphone users use about twice as much data as 3G users, mainly to stream video. Smartphone penetration in Vodafone’s European markets is around 45%. Both factors are pushing mobile operators toward fibre, which has the required capacity to ensure an acceptable user experience.
The MNOs’ options are to switch to so-called E-band microwave in the 60-90MHz band, which due to rapid attenuation of signals, will require many more sites to be rented; to rent access to commercial fibre where available; to rent regulated fibre from the incumbent operators, or to build their own fibre networks.
Vodafone has bought some of its own fibre backhaul (eg Cable& Wireless), but it has cost billions and doesn’t always cover the cities where demand is greatest. Building new fibre would duplicate existing fibre networks, take a long time, and cost a lot more on top of their expensive mobile licences.
Last week Ofcom said it would give BT a further period of non-regulation of fibre prices for high speed (above 1Gbps), where it holds an effective monopoly outside London. It also promised to rule soon on a TalkTalk complaint that BT operates an illegal margin squeeze on fibre prices.
Wreschner said he was watching the margin squeeze decision with interest, but stressed that that is a different market (retail) to Vodafone’s concern (wholesale) about backhaul. “We think the wholesale market needs specific regulation,” he said.
This is why, although they face similar problems as altnets trying to provide fibre to rural homes and businesses, the mobile industry did not speak out when the BDUK process was being set up, he said.