Tag: Openreach

You may have recently noticed construction workers from different businesses digging up the roads/pavements near where you live. You may also have noticed them laying fibre optic cables. Why has this been happening? Does it make economic sense for different companies to dig up the same stretch of pavement and lay similar cables next to one another?

For many years the UK had one national fixed communication network that was owned by British Telecom (BT) – the traditional phone landline made from copper wire. This is now operated by OpenReach – part of the BT group but a legally separate division. In addition to this national infrastructure, Virgin Media (formed in 2007 from the merged cable operators, Telewest and NTL) has gradually built up a rival fixed broadband network that now covers just over 50 per cent of the country.

Although customers have only had very limited choice over which fixed communication network to use, they have had far greater choice over which Internet service provider (ISP) to sign up for. This has been possible as the industry regulator, Ofcom, forces OpenReach to provide rival ISPs such as Sky Broadband, TalkTalk and Zen with access to its network.

Expansion of the fibre optic network

Recent government policy has tried to encourage and incentivise the replacement of the copper wire network with one that is fully fibre. This is often referred to as Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) or Fibre to the Home (FTTH). A fixed network of fully fibre broadband enables much faster download speeds and many argue that it is vital for the future competitiveness of the UK economy.

Replacing the existing fixed communication network with fibre optic cables is expensive. It can involve major civil works: i.e. the digging up of roads and pavements to install new ducts to lay the fibre optic cables inside.

Over a hundred companies, that are not part of either OpenReach or Virgin Media O2 (the parent company of Virgin Media), have recently been digging up pavements/roads and laying new fibre optic cables. Known as alternative network providers (altnets) or independent networks, these businesses vary in size, with many of them securing large loans from banks and private investors. By the middle of 2023, 2.5 million premises in the UK had access to at least two or more of these independent networks.

After a slow initial response to the altnets, OpenReach has recently responded by rapidly installing FTTP. The business is currently building 62 000 connections every week and plans to have 25 million premises connected by the end of 2026. In July 2022, Virgin Media O2 announced that it was establishing a new joint venture with InfraVia Capital Partners. Called Nexfibre, this business aims to connect 5 million premises to FTTP by 2026.

Is the fibre optic network a natural monopoly?

Some people argue that the fixed communication network is an example of a natural monopoly – an industry where a single firm can supply the whole market at a lower average cost than two or more firms. To what extent is this true?

An industry is a natural monopoly where the minimum efficient scale of production (MES) is larger than the market demand for the good/service. This is more likely to occur where there are significant economies of scale. Digging up roads/pavements, installing new ducts and laying fibre optic cable are clear examples of fixed costs. Once the network is built, the marginal cost of supplying customers is relatively small. Therefore, this industry has significant economies of scale and a relatively large MES. This has led many people to argue that building rival fixed communication networks is wasteful duplication and will lead to higher costs and prices.

However, when judging if a sector is a natural monopoly, it is always important to remember that a comparison needs to be made between the MES and the size of the market. An industry could have significant economies of scale, but not be an example of a natural monopoly if the market demand is significantly larger than the MES.

In the case of the fixed communication network, the size of the market will vary significantly between different regions of the country. In densely populated urban areas, such as large towns and cities, the demand for services provided via these networks is likely to be relatively large. Therefore, the MES could be smaller than the size of the market, making competition between network suppliers both possible and desirable. For example, competition may incentivise firms to innovate, become more efficient and reduce costs.

Research undertaken for the government by the consultancy business, Frontier Economics, found that at least a third of UK households live in areas where competition between three or more different networks is economically desirable.

By contrast, in more sparsely populated rural areas, demand for the services provided by these networks will be smaller. The fixed costs per household of installing the network over longer distances will also be larger. Therefore, the MES is more likely to be greater than the size of the market.

The same research undertaken by Frontier Economics found that around 10 per cent of households live in areas where the fixed communication network is a natural monopoly. The demand and cost conditions for another 10 per cent of households meant it is not commercially viable to have any suppliers.

Therefore, policies towards the promotion of competition, regulation, and government support for the fixed communication network might have to be adjusted depending on the specific demand and cost conditions in a particular region.




  1. Explain the difference between fixed and wireless communication networks.
  2. Draw a diagram to illustrate a profit-maximising natural monopoly. Outline some of the implications for allocative efficiency.
  3. Discuss some of the issues with regulating natural monopolies, paying particular attention to price regulation.
  4. The term ‘overbuild’ is often used to describe a situation where more than one fibre broadband network is being constructed in the same place. Some people argue that incumbent network suppliers deliberately choose to use this term to imply that the outcome is harmful for society. Discuss this argument.
  5. An important part of government policy in this sector has been the Duct and Pole Access Strategy (DPA). Illustrate the impact of this strategy on the average cost curve and the minimum efficient scale of production for fibre broadband networks.
  6. Draw a diagram to illustrate a region where (a) it is economically viable to have two or more fibre optic broadband network suppliers and (b) where it is commercially unviable to have any broadband network suppliers without government support.
  7. Some people argue that network competition provides strong incentives for firms to innovate, to become more efficient and reduce costs. Draw a diagram to illustrate this argument.
  8. Explain why many ‘altnets’ are so opposed to OpenReach’s new ‘Equinox 2’ pricing scheme for its fibre network.

The government plans to improve broadband access across the country and BT is a key company within this agenda. However, one of the problems with BT concerns its natural monopoly over the cable network and the fact that this restricts competition and hence might prevent the planned improvements.

Ofcom, the communications watchdog has now said that BT must open up its cable network, making it easier for other companies to access. This will allow companies such as Sky, Vodafone and TalkTalk to invest in the internet network in the UK, addressing their criticisms that BT has under-invested in Openreach and this is preventing universal access to decent and affordable broadband. There have been calls for Ofcom to require BT and Openreach to separate, but Ofcom’s report hasn’t required this, though has noted that it ‘remains an option’.

BT has been criticised as relying on old cables that are not sufficient to provide the superfast broadband that the government wants. The report may come as a relief to BT who had perhaps expected that Ofcom might require it to sell its Openreach operation, but it will also remain concerned about Ofcom’s constant monitoring in the years to come. BT commented:

“Openreach is already one of the most heavily regulated businesses in the world but we have volunteered to accept tighter regulation … We are happy to let other companies use our ducts and poles if they are genuinely keen to invest very large sums as we have done.”

Its rivals will also be in two minds about the report, happy that some action will be taken, but wanting more, as Ofcom’s report suggests that “Openreach still has an incentive to make decisions in the interests of BT, rather than BT’s competitors”. A spokesperson for Vodafone said:

“BT still remains a monopoly provider with a regulated business running at a 28% profit margin …We urge Ofcom to ensure BT reinvests the £4bn in excess profits Openreach has generated over the last decade in bringing fibre to millions of premises across the country, and not just make half-promises to spend an unsubstantiated amount on more old copper cable.”

The impact of Ofcom’s report on the competitiveness of this market will be seen over the coming years and with a freer market, we might expect prices to come down and see improved broadband coverage across the UK. In order to achieve the government’s objective with regards to broadband coverage, a significant investment is needed in the network. With BT having to relinquish its monopoly power and the market becoming more competitive, this may be the first step towards universal access to superfast broadband. The following articles consider this report and its implications.

Ofcom opens a road to faster broadband The Guardian, Harriet Meyer and Rob Davies (28/2/16)
Ofcom: BT must open up its Openreach network Sky News (25/2/16)
How Ofcom’s review of BT Openreach could improve your internet service Independent, Doug Bolton (25/2/16)
Ofcom’s digital review boosts faltering broadband network Financial Times, Daniel Thomas (25/2/16)
The Observer view on broadband speeds in Britain The Observer, Editorial (28/2/16)
Ofcom tells BT to open up cable network to rivals’ BBC News (25/2/16)
Ofcom should go further and break up BT Financial Times, John Gapper (25/2/16)
BT escapes forced Openreach spin-off but Ofcom tightens regulations International Business Times, Bauke Schram (25/2/16)


  1. Why does BT have a monopoly and how might this affect the price, output and profits in this market?
  2. Ofcom’s report suggests that the market must be opened up and this would increase competitiveness. How is this expected to work?
  3. What are the benefits and costs of using regulation in a case such as this, as opposed to some other form of intervention?
  4. How might a more competitive market increase investment in this market?
  5. If the market does become more competitive, what be the likely consequences for consumers and firms?