Network Rail ‘Shelves Plans’ To Sell Fibre Network

Network Rail suspends plans to sell fibre network, form a joint venture, or share capacity despite significant interest to boost mobile and rural broadband

Network Rail no longer plans to sell its telecoms infrastructure, according to the Financial Times, which says the organisation will look at spinning off other assets to raise cash for improvements to the UK’s rail network.

It had been reported earlier this year that Network Rail was 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, but could also be used to improve mobile coverage on trains and boost rural broadband coverage.

No sale plans                                                                       

Chiltern Railways 1Network Rail told TechWeekEurope in March that it had no plans to privatise the infrastructure, but suggested it could sell capacity to telecoms operators on a wholesale basis.

“We are not selling our telecoms network,” a spokesperson said. “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.”

The FT claims talks were held with Virgin Media and BT, the latter of which was deemed to be the frontrunner, and it is possible the question of a sale could arise in the future due to ongoing government pressure for Network Rail to reduce its debt.

Network Rail told TechWeekEurope it had explored options to sell off spare capacity but this process had come to an end.

“We started to look at options to divest our spare capacity in the telecoms network,” said a spokesperson. “There are now no immediate plans to progress this as we focus on other assets under consideration. This project was not part of plans to generate £1.8 billion towards the Railway Upgrade Plan.”

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Telecoms ambitions

In 2014, Network Rail applied to Ofcom for powers to extend the FTNx 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.

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.

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