E-minister: UK in line with European unbundling plans

UK is not dragging behind on unbundling, states Hewitt, despite queue of companies lining up to have a go at BT and Oftel

E-minister Patricia Hewitt welcomed an agreement made at a key meeting of telecoms ministers in Luxembourg Tuesday and denies that the UK is behind with unbundling of the local loop.

Telecoms ministers met to approve draft regulation on unbundling, which the EC is keen to see happen as quickly as possible across Europe. In a statement Hewitt claimed the UK is both "fully compliant" and fully supportive of European plans to shake up the telecoms landscape across member states.

Countering criticism that the UK is falling behind in creating a competitive telecoms market, Hewitt defended unbundling plans. "Far from dragging its feet, the UK has been accelerating local loop unbundling," she said. She also reiterated government support for telecoms watchdog Oftel which has been coming under increasing pressure from other operators to speed up the unbundling process. "We will continue to back Oftel in taking the tough decisions needed to deliver it [unbundling]," she adds.

Local loop unbundling will see incumbent telcos across Europe hand over the keys to their exchanges to allow other operators access to their telephone lines. It is seen as a key development to ensure competition and ultimately cheaper prices for broadband Internet services. Germany, Denmark and Finland have already begun unbundling, and the process took place some time ago in the US.

Meanwhile the UK's regulator -- responsible for overseeing the process -- has been accused of being soft on BT and allowing it longer than the EC wants to set up unbundled services. Microsoft, Colt, Energis and AOL are among high profile firms to criticise the telco's deployment of broadband, filing a formal complaint with Oftel.

While operators wait for unbundling, ADSL is available wholesale from BT. A BT report for the DTI claims that ADSL roll out in the UK is very aggressive with 50 percent coverage by March 2001. This will mean 11.5 million households will have access to the technology. Over 700 exchanges will be equipped with ADSL capability by the end of the year.

In keeping with Tony Blair's plans for universal access to broadband, BT will have equipped 45 percent of schools and half the public libraries in the UK by March next year.

Critics argue that BT is excluding rural areas from its broadband revolution and that with a wholesale price tag of £35 ADSL has a long way to go before it is a mass market product. Operators are calling on BT to offer a cheaper wholesale service while they wait to get their hands on the telco's copper.

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