Unbundling made law but BT is making no promises

Unbundling now has legal weight but BT still won't commit

The European Parliament votes in favour Thursday of the EC's proposals to open up the telecoms market across Europe, promising lower access prices and a faster rollout of broadband services.

The vote was hailed as an "historic decision" by the European Commission which has been waging war on European incumbents since March when it first presented its proposals for local loop unbundling. The ratification from the European Parliament means the regulation will now become law across all member states.

BT and other European incumbents that fail to observe the timetable -- that services from alternative operators should be available in incumbent's local exchanges from 1 January 2001 -- could face legal action.

Telecoms watchdog Oftel has already fallen foul of the EC, scheduling unbundling six months behind the European deadline. Following intense criticism from industry and revelations that its director general David Edmonds has been summoned to appear before the Trade and Industry Select Committee next month to offer an explanation, the regulator has recently adopted a tougher line.

Operators have complained that BT is deliberately dragging its heels on opening up its exchanges, claiming there is not enough space for other operators. Oftel is beginning to tackle this problem, sending out independent investigators to verify the telco's claims and claiming that new powers in the European legislation will help it get even tougher on BT.

"Up until now we had no right to demand evidence from BT. Now we have new powers requiring BT to provide extra information," says an Oftel spokesman. The watchdog will now be asking BT to prove there is lack of space in its exchanges.

Rival telcos are also unhappy that Oftel has only allocated a tiny percentage -- 360 of BT's 6,000 local exchanges -- for colocation. In order to ensure a fair allocation of the more popular exchanges Oftel wants to employ the Electoral Reform Society to conduct an auction. This proposal is currently up for industry consultation.

Oftel is confident that BT will buckle down and conform to the EC's guidelines. "We will start to see product from January. BT is aware that it has four months and has to make 360 exchanges ready by January," says an Oftel spokesman.

BT however is not prepared to commit to a 1 January deadline, claiming there are still many issues to be ironed out. It claims the timetable is the regulator's problem. "That is something you will have to ask Oftel," a BT spokesman told ZDNet News when asked what unbundled services would be on offer by January.

Although Oftel claims there is no reason why the 360 exchanges it currently has allocated for colocation can not be made ready by January, BT insists space is still a major issue. "There is huge demand on key exchanges and Oftel is looking at ways of doing this. That will determine what services are available in January," says a spokesman.

Which raises the question of how long BT has known the exchanges were unsuitable for colocation and why it has not done anything about it earlier. BT insists it told Oftel "very early on" in the process about the problems of space but claims it was unfeasible to undertake changes. "If you are suggesting we should have undertaken massive building work all on the strength of putative legislation then that is not very feasible," says the BT spokesman.

He denies that BT is deliberately dragging out the process of unbundling. "We have been bending over backwards for Oftel," he says.

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