A Year Ago: Oftel slaps anti-competitive order on BT

First published: Wed, 27 Oct 1999 11:44:06 GMT

Oftel accuses BT of "potential anti-competitiveness" as the watchdog issues its "most serious" order ever against the telecom giant on Wednesday.

Oftel on Wednesday accused BT of breaching its license by failing to deliver services under the Calls and Access scheme.

The scheme, forced on BT by Oftel in early 1998, was an attempt by the watchdog to end BT's stranglehold of the telcoms market. Small telecoms player Localtel used the service to launch Screaming.net, offering customers free evening and weekend Internet access as well as up to 10 percent off voice calls. Localtel has complained Oftel that BT is simply not passing customers on.

Oftel told ZDNet Wednesday that "BT could be viewed as being anti-competitive as it is failing to allow Localtel to build its services," a view the watchdog takes very seriously indeed. "This is the first time we [Oftel] have had to issue a second order and this is the most serious that has ever been issued," an Oftel spokesman confirmed. He added: "We issued a provisional order in August following complaints from Localtel and NextCall and BT had three months to sort the problem out. Oftel is not happy BT has complied with this. This scheme was designed to increase competition in the market and BT is not fulfilling its promises to us on that score. It is extremely serious."

A spokesman for Localtel blamed BT for the billing fiascos its customers have experienced. At one time, he explained, there was a backlog of 50,000 customers wishing to transfer from BT to Localtel. "Back in August we were under a lot of pressure. BT was failing to handle the transfer of customers, transferring customers and not telling Localtel, sending BT bills to Localtel customers, for example." He added: "It is a pity BT haven't put the same resources into Calls and Access as they did into getting customers back. They may have followed the letter of the law but the spirit was definitely lacking."

Maev Sullivan, an independent telecoms analyst went further: "BT is breaching its license in that it is discriminating against the service providers who take up the Calls and Access service. BT is, and has for a long time, preferred its own retail business over and above its competitors. Its license prohibits this and it has done amazing damage to the service providers." Citing Localtel's experience Sullivan said billing problems forced Localtel customers to leave the service. "These companies are completely dependent on BT in order to establish their businesses. Until BT transfers customers smoothly it will remain difficult for them to build businesses and add new services."

Regardless of Oftel's condemnation and strong words, Sullivan remains unimpressed by the watchdog's attempt to punish BT. "This has been going on for a year and Oftel has only just made its second order, which astonishes me," she said.

BT admitted to ZDNet UK News that it has had problems with the Calls and Access service. "We have never made any secret that we have difficulty with the new service but we are talking to Oftel and service providers to resolve it," a spokeswoman said.

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