Network Rail Could Sell Fibre Broadband Network To UK Telcos

Reports suggest Network Rail could sell its network, start a joint venture or offer wholesale access in move that would boost fixed and mobile broadband

Network Rail is considering the sale of its fibre infrastructure and there is interest from several major telecoms firms looking to boost fixed and mobile broadband coverage across the country, according to reports.

The Financial Times says Network Rail is exploring the possibility of either selling off the network, which runs parallel to the UK’s railways, setting up a joint-venture or providing access on a wholesale basis to telecoms firms.

The FTNx fibre network currently delivers voice, video and data traffic for maintenance teams and communication between locomotives, however Network Rail wants to raise cash for rail network improvements by selling off assets, as its ability to borrow money at present is restricted.

Network Rail fibre

Chiltern Railways 1In 2014, Network Rail applied to Ofcom for powers to extend the former’s fibre infrastructure and offer wholesale services to other providers. It asked the regulator for ‘code powers’ under the electronic communications code that would remove a lot of the red tape associated with deploying fibre beyond the railways.

The process is at an early stage, with no formal proposals expected to emerge until May, but Virgin Media, Vodafone and TalkTalk are apparently interested in doing a deal.

Network Rail’s network could be used as the base for a fibre network traversing the country, including rural areas, or act as backhaul for mobile masts that can boost rural coverage.

It has also been suggested that Network Rail could open up its ducts for third parties to lay their own fibre cables. Ofcom’s recent review of the UK communications market has proposed making it easier for third party communications providers to lay their own cables in BT Openreach’s ducts and poles.

Any deal would likely require the telco partner to boost Wi-Fi and mobile coverage on the UK’s railways. Ironically, it had been thought revenue generated from fines levied by the government on Network Rail would be used to fund a wireless network for commuter routes into London.

UPDATE 30/03/2016: Network Rail has ruled out a sale of its infrastructure but has said it could sell capacity to telecoms providers on a wholesale basis.

“We are not selling our telecoms network,” a spokesperson told TechWeekEurope. “However, we do have unused capacity in our fibre optic network. It is commercially sensible to see if we can sell this capacity to telecoms companies – we don’t need it and they do.”

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