Ofcom looks to ways to provide cheap fibre
Super-fast broadband could be delivered via the underground pipes of the UK's water and electricity companies, regulator Ofcom has said.
It is conducting a survey of the UK's ducting network to see its suitability for carrying fibre networks.
Some companies in the UK and France already offer fast broadband via the sewers.
Ofcom also wants to see the three million homes earmarked to be built in the UK by 2020, fibre-enabled.
It has opened a consultation - which will run until June 25 - to see how best to regulate next-generation networks.
Critics have warned that the regulator is not doing enough and that the UK is in real danger of falling behind with the rollout of superfast broadband access.
"The fact that this is just a consultation is another indication that the UK is lagging behind," said Ian Fogg, an analyst with Jupiter Research.
In France, for example, there are already three operators providing superfast broadband to homes at speeds of between 50 and 100 megabits per second. One of these offers an IPTV service and Voice-over IP telephone line alongside its fibre service, for 29.99 euros per month.
In a speech delivered to the Institution of Engineering and Technology, Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards will lay out the case for the UK to get on with deploying super-fast broadband.
"Next generation broadband will come to change our perception of communication radically. So we must prepare now."
Broadband via sewers
Ofcom is keen to see how much fibre could be deployed via the networks of other utilities such as water and energy.
"We must be sure we are not missing a trick here. We know that lots of the costs are in the civil engineering and this is civil engineering of a very similar kind," he said.
A similar survey conducted in France has revealed that over half of existing telecoms infrastructure could be suitable for fibre deployment.
Using existing infrastructure means fibre can be rolled out at a fraction of the costs involved if roads had to be dug up.
In the UK, several companies have been offering super-fast broadband to businesses via the sewers.
One of these firms, H2O, has pledged to begin a fibre rollout to UK homes in the autumn.
As well as using the pipes of utility companies, Ofcom will also explore the idea of duct-sharing, where BT's existing pipes are made available to other next-generation broadband providers.
BT said it had an "open mind" on the idea of duct-sharing but that there were "some practical operational issues associated with it".
"This already exists as a possible remedy and has been introduced in some EU countries; however, Ofcom's previous consultations have not found any demand for this in the UK," said a BT spokesman.
Ofcom is also keen to kick-start fibre deployment to all new homes and businesses and has opened a consultation asking for views on how next-generation broadband should be regulated.
"We would prefer not to impose new regulation. We want to encourage investment to make the deployment of fibre-based products attractive to property developers," said an Ofcom spokeswoman.
The key thing will be to avoid having one or two providers dominating the fibre landscape, said Mr Fogg.
How fibre impacts on the existing copper infrastructure also needs to be considered, he said.
Currently a system known as local loop unbundling means rival operators have access to BT's exchanges in order to offer alternative broadband services.
"BT could switch off its copper network and sell off telephone exchanges. Fibre to the home would be cheaper for it to operate but it would leave companies such as Sky, Carphone Warehouse and Orange high and dry."
Ian Livingston, the BT chief executive due to take over from Ben Verwaayen in June, has indicated in an interview with the Times newspaper that the firm is unwilling to maintain its old copper network if new fibre infrastructure is built.
Ofcom's decision to focus just on new-builds avoids such controversy but does open up the possibility of a new digital divide, said Mr Fogg.
"Offering fibre to the home in new-builds is tackling the easiest part of the fibre rollout but it does mean that consumers will have to move house to take advantage of fast networks."
BT is rolling out fibre to one new build estate in the UK, with the first 600 homes connected by August of this year.
The trial - at Ebbsfleet in Kent - will eventually see some 10,000 homes connected via fibre with speeds of up to 100Mbps (megabits per second). The project will take until 2020 to complete.
BT has yet to confirm any other sites for the deployment of fibre.
Connections of up to 100Mbp will allow for a host of new services including on-demand high definition (HD) TV, DVD quality film downloads in minutes, online video messaging, CCTV home surveillance and HD gaming services.