Oftel and EC battle with ADSL deadline

Oftel doesn't know what exactly the EC wants and in the meantime, BT is holding out as long as it can

Confusion reigns Thursday over exactly when British consumers can expect high speed Internet services from BT which is now required by law to deliver by December.

The December deadline follows an EC directive Wednesday that affects all incumbent operators throughout Europe. But it remains unclear whether BT will actually deliver ADSL in December or simply create a legal framework to do so within the EC's time frame

Unbundling the local loop will give other operators access to BT's network which is widely seen as a crucial step in introducing competitively priced broadband services. It will allow operators to roll out ADSL high speed Internet independent of the telco.

The European Commission is currently hurrying through legislation requiring incumbents to unbundle by December 2000. "The regulation would require new entrants to offer access to the local loop by January 2001 and for products to be available to consumers by then. We are hopeful all member states will respect that," says Per Haugaard, spokesman for commissioner of the Information Society, Errki Liikanen.

Telecoms watchdog Oftel understands the EC's decree differently: "It is our understanding that the December deadline is for the legal framework to be in place. When consumers get the product we don't consider to be part of the equation," says an Oftel spokesman.

That could prove a costly mistake for Oftel which has recently been criticised by the EC for its slow reaction to complaints about anti-competitiveness in the mobile market and its regulation of the fixed line market.

In a press release issued Wednesday by Oftel it claims to be ahead of schedule on unbundling. While it intends to begin trialling unbundled services in January 2001 -- with fourteen alternative operators selected -- mass consumer take-up will not be available then. "The earliest possible roll out we can see is July," says the spokesman.

The EC says July is six months too late.

Oftel is currently unclear on what the EC expects from its national regulators, according to its spokesman. "It is not clear in either the press release or the draft regulation, but we have staff in Brussels clarifying this," he says.

Managing director of AltaVista Andy Mitchell is unimpressed by the watchdog's stance. "Oftel seem to be up to their eyeballs in regulation rather than figuring out what is best for consumers," he says. While welcoming the EC's intervention Mitchell is concerned that it has been left to government to sort out competition in the telecoms market. "It is a shame that we have to revert back to regulation in order to get the best deal for consumers," he says.

Oftel insists consumers are always on its mind. "We are certainly keeping consumers close to our hearts. We want to make sure product is right for them," says the spokesman.

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