UK still failing on broadband unbundling

BT is being blamed yet again after attempts to bring greater competition to the UK telecoms sector hit more problems

Latest figures from communications regulator Ofcom show that UK telecoms firms are still struggling to get access to the local telephone network, and BT is at the heart of the problem.

Peter Black, Ofcom's Telecoms Adjudicator, reported on Tuesday that just 35,000 BT telephone lines have been unbundled so far, against a target for February 2005 of 50,000.

Although Black reported that significant progress had made in local loop unbundling (LLU) over recent months, he also said that just 50 to 60 percent of newly unbundled lines were actually delivered 'right first time', against a target of 75 percent that insiders point out should hardly be onerous.

The regulator warned that this is making it difficult for operators to plan and launch new services -- which could include cutting-edge broadband products -- using unbundled lines.

"LLU operators continue to experience operational problems, and variable delivery performance is inhibiting operators' marketing plans. The Adjudicator's update makes it clear that operational performance is the key to success for LLU as order volumes grow," said Ofcom on Tuesday.

An Ofcom spokesman added that BT was close to launching new automated processes which could address some of the problems.

Peter Black was appointed as Telecoms Adjudicator last July, after Ofcom concluded that drastic changes were needed to make LLU a success in the UK. LLU was meant to boost competition by letting BT's rivals take control of the copper wires linking homes and businesses to BT's local exchanges, but it has been an embarrassing failure. Potential LLU operators have blamed BT for high prices and obstructive tactics, while BT itself insisted that a lack of demand was to blame.

So far 14 companies have joined Ofcom's Telecommunications Adjudication Scheme.

None of the operators and service providers contacted by ZDNet UK would speak about their concerns on the record -- apparently worried that going public could damage their relations with BT -- but it's clear that several have deep concerns about BT's commitment to the unbundling process

"Is it in BT's interest to be super-efficient at the wholesale level when its retail arm isn't super-efficient," questioned one, suggesting that BT was keen to avoid the level playing field that LLU could create at the retail level.

A representative from a second UK telco pointed out that the target of delivering 75 percent of unbundled lines correctly was "conservative", and should not have posed much problem to a company of BT's might.

"This is a huge embarrassment for Ben Verwaayen, who has said that BT is 100% committed to LLU," said this representative. "Delivering between 50 and 60 percent of unbundled lines 'right first time' is not a good reflection on BT. If this can be an effective 'name and shame' then all well and good."

A BT spokesperson pointed out that the targets had been set by the Telecoms Adjudicator, and said that the rate of increase in unbundled lines was affected by the number of orders received by LLU operators.

"The scale of the increase reported by the Adjudicator follows BT's efforts to reduce prices in May and October last year," the BT spokesperson added. These price cuts, though, were demanded by Ofcom in May.

BT declined to comment on the operational problems mentioned by Ofcom.

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