A Year Ago: E-minister rushes to defend BT and Oftel

First published: Fri, 18 Feb 2000 17:44:14 GMT

At 8am Friday morning, ZDNet's Jane Wakefield boarded a train to Leicester with the e-Minister Patricia Hewitt to discuss BT, the local loop and those comments made by Gordon Brown. This is the first of her reports, which will conclude Monday

BT is not a monopoly, Oftel is doing a good job and people who criticise them don't know what they are talking about according to the e-Minister Patricia Hewitt, who gave an exclusive interview to ZDNet News Friday.

Her comments come at the end of a week of wrangles between the telecoms regulator, BT and the government. On Thursday Chancellor Gordon Brown made it clear that the government is not impressed with progress being made by either when he claimed the current Internet climate was stifling e-commerce in Britain.

Hewitt reasserted Brown's promise to halve Internet access costs by 2002. "We will get there and we'll get there fast," she said. But while Hewitt agreed that the price of Internet access is "the single most important" factor in getting the nation wired she refused to accept that BT continues to dominate the market. "BT is not a monopoly," she told ZDNet. "We have already got the most competitive telecoms market in Europe. In Germany, Deutsche Telecom don't just dominate the local loop but the ISP market as well.

"The idea that we are dragging our heels and allowing an incumbent to hang onto a monopoly is simply not the case. BT is not the dominant provider in international calls, not in mobiles and not in ISPs," she said. Giving nothing away Hewitt emphasised that it is the job of competition and not government to control prices and availability of Internet services.

Admitting that some ISPs have complained about Oftel's ability to regulate BT, Hewitt remains a staunch advocate, claiming critics simply do not know what they are talking about. "People make great sweeping allegations [about Oftel]. Then it becomes clear that either they don't understand the technical problems or they prefer to ignore them because it is easier to make a general complaint."

Unbundling the local loop -- where BT hands over control of its network to other operators -- is not due until July 2001. Hewitt said she hopes it will happen more quickly. "There are people, including me, that would have liked it to have happened yesterday." The good news is, said Hewitt, that BT and Oftel are working towards bringing it forward "by at least a couple of months".

Once that has happened Hewitt looks forward to a competitive Internet market where the UK "will have the richest broadband environment in the world".

Tony Westbrook has four simple words for BT -- Free the local loop! Go with Tony to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

ZDNet UK News will bring you Jane Wakefield's full interview with the e-Minister Monday. If you have any comments you would like to make, please do so now via the Mailroom.