BT will have to open up the telegraph poles and under-street ducts that make up much of its network structure to competitors under plans published by telecoms regulator Ofcom.
The former state monopoly will have to provide detailed information on the network to competitors by the end of the year under Ofcom's plans, which are designed to increase competition in the telecoms market.
Ofcom said that there is unused network capacity that BT should make available to other companies.
"From June 2008 and during 2009, Ofcom conducted surveys of BT's duct network, which indicated that there may be a significant amount of unoccupied space in the network, with up to 40% or 50% having room for new cables in some locations," said an Ofcom statement. "The second survey published today, of ducts closer to homes and businesses, shows a similar amount of unoccupied space, as well as potential capacity for additional wires to be added to BT's telegraph poles. However, availability is highly variable across the country and the practicalities of using BT's ducts and poles have yet to be worked through."
Ofcom said that BT will have to provide competing operators with information about the network infrastructure within three months of Ofcom's concluding statement on the matter, which is expected in the autumn.
The report carried out for Ofcom recognised, though, that not all ducting will be physically capable of being shared. "Unoccupied duct-end space will not directly translate into useable duct space for a communication provider (CP) willing to use the ducts since a duct might have collapsed in the middle of a section [or] the cable arrangement far into the duct may be such that existing cable cross-over may prevent any further cables being inserted in the duct," said that report.
That survey found that 85% of poles could accommodate more wires and that 63% of them could accommodate double the number of wires that were currently on them.
Ofcom will also force BT to share space on new optical cables that it lays so that competing companies, as well as it, can offer superfast broadband services.
"With super-fast broadband now available to around half of UK households, roll-out here is ahead of many countries, particularly in Europe," said its report on the issue. "To support the future development of the market, it is important that we now focus on defining in detail what regulations may be needed to support continued investment and competition."
"At this early stage in the development of super-fast broadband, other communications companies indicate that they may prefer initially to be able to deliver services over BT’s network rather than build their own," it said. "Therefore we propose that BT should make wholesale virtual unbundled local access (VULA) available to other communications companies on the same basis as to itself."
BT will be allowed to set the wholesale price which other companies will pay to access its optical fibre to "ensure BT's incentives to invest are not damaged", the report said.
"Super-fast broadband is starting to be a reality in the UK, with very significant advances in recent months in the speeds some providers are offering," said Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards. "Ofcom's proposed regulatory framework is intended to support the next phase of development by promoting investment, competition and innovation for consumers across the UK."
Ofcom has also given a definition of exactly what counts as super-fast broadband. It said that the term should only refer to broadband with speeds greater than 24 megabits per second (Mbps).
The Government has been criticised over its plans to increase the penetration of super-fast broadband networks. It has proposed taxing every phone line 50p per month to pay to extend super-fast acess to 90% of households by 2017.
A Government report showed that this was just 20% more households than could be reached without any public funding.
A Committee of MPs last month criticised the tax and the planned use of the money, saying that there was not yet sufficient demand from citizens to justify spending the money on super-fast access. The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee also said that the levy would disproportionately punish the poor to pay for a service which will be mostly used by the rich.