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Broadband and 5G Boost as Network Rail Plan GBP1bn Cable Auction

Monday, April 26th, 2021 (8:23 am) - Score 6,456
trains network rail engineers

Network Rail, which is responsible for running Britain’s railways, has revealed they will auction off 10,000 miles worth of their old trackside cable network (much of this still runs off legacy copper lines and is in need of an upgrade). The £1bn auction could help to support the UK rollout of gigabit broadband and 5G mobile.

At present the operator’s trackside data infrastructure (a mix of copper and some fibre optic cables) carries all sorts of transport, video (CCTV etc.), signalling and other communications. Over the past decade we’ve seen Network Rail repeatedly try to make better use of this ageing infrastructure (e.g. offering greater access via wholesale), not least in order to help them cut their £50bn debt pile.

Back in 2016 the operator seemed to be leaning toward a significant asset sale or joint venture (here), but that proposal ended up being shelved. At the time NR was busy holding talks with a number of major telecoms and broadband providers (BT was said to be a front-runner), but in the end a mutually agreeable deal could not be reached and the talks stalled.

At the time it was suggested that NR may instead sell off some of their associated infrastructure and, after a very long wait, this now appears to be exactly what they’re intending to do. Under the plan NR would no doubt retain some access (essential for maintaining their services), while the new owner would be expected to help upgrade the cables (e.g. replacing the remaining copper lines with fibre optics) and build 250 new mobile phone masts close to the train lines. The goal is for both parties to benefit.

Andrew Haines, Network Rail CEO, said (Telegraph – paywall):

“Our telecoms infrastructure requires an upgrade if we are to meet the growing connectivity needs of passengers and the railway itself – particularly to make sure our fibre capacity can handle more data, at greater speed, more reliably.

This proposal makes good business sense for all parties. We get a cutting edge, future-proof telecoms infrastructure; the investor gets a great business opportunity; train passengers in Britain get an improved service for years to come; and the taxpayer saves a significant amount of money.”

Lest we forget that, back in December 2017, the UK Government pledged to make “uninterruptedWiFi and Mobile (5G) broadband speeds of up to 1Gbps (Gigabits per second) available on-board all UK mainline train routes by 2025. Since then, we’ve rarely seen this mentioned anywhere and last year the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) similarly questioned whether it would be achieved on time (here) – that was before COVID-19 fully hit.

On top of that the Government’s new £5bn Project Gigabit programme may also benefit. This is focused upon rural areas (final 20% of premises) and seeks to ensure that at least 85% of UK premises can access 1Gbps class broadband ISP speeds by the end of 2025, while also aiming to get “as close to 100% as possible.”

The big question mark in all this has always been over how much NR’s trackside cables would actually be worth to telecoms firms. The network tends to follow a very specific path and largely passes through areas that are already well served by a variety of other broadband and communications providers. Certainly, there will be opportunities to be found, but it may not be worth quite as much as the rail operator would hope.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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9 Responses
  1. Margaret Thatcher says:

    We must sell the country’s assets to private shareholders for private profit at all and any cost!

  2. lolfibre says:

    Looks like yet another fibre network a telco will buy to stop others using it (looking at you Vodafone and Centurylink)

    1. Ferrocene Cloud says:

      I wouldn’t have thought it would be too attractive to Virgin Media or BT as they have a lot more fibre, so it would be a lot less gain. The fact they walked away several years ago is revealing.

      For a provider with a smaller fibre network, the costs and hassle might be worthwhile to be able to migrate considerable amounts of 3rd party backhaul. If other providers did have some use they could just lease a fibre to meet that specific business case, without needing to pay for ownership and maintenance.

      Trackside restrictions could make things expensive due to delays in gaining access when there’s a fault, to say nothing of people stealing fibres thinking it’s copper.

  3. dave jones says:

    the 5g auction negotation was supposed to be finished on april 23rd according to this: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0028/217486/notice-reg-95.pdf, maybe the site owner can contact ofcom for an update.

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      The final negotiation phase was always expected to be the tricky one, and it’ll end when the participating parties can reach some agreement on their respective allocations. But that’s not related to this article.

  4. Shrewd Negotiator says:

    I’ll give em a snickers bar and a can of coke for it. Final offer.

  5. A_Builder says:

    Plus all the joys of the Network Rail trackside access regions making things slow difficult and expensive…..

    Personally I would pass on the ‘opportunity’ as it could be very poisonous costs wise!

    1. Ferrocene Cloud says:

      For those with large fibre networks I doubt the benefits outweigh the considerable drawbacks, and they’d just lease a fibre if needed instead of dealing with the hassles of ownership. Said hassles should give any prospective owner cause to think long and hard.

  6. Henry T Barracuda says:

    When we were privatised in 1994 from BR Racal acquired us and then proceeded to install 48 fibre nationally. We were then taken over by Thales who sold the network to Global crossing. Network rail have been busy installing 432 fibre from York to Manchester in the past few years it’s my understanding that this is a national project also. I suspect this is the network your talking about.

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