Blair backs unbundling six months ahead of schedule

PM and EU draft new unbundled agreement that will see rollout ahead of BT's own schedule
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

On Friday, Prime Minister Tony Blair signed on the dotted line his desire to have the local loop unbundled six months ahead of the schedule agreed by the telecommunications watchdog, Oftel, and British Telecom (quote: BT).

Blair signed the agreement, along with other European heads of state, at the EU summit in Lisbon and, according to Oftel, has completely confounded the watchdog and its charge.

Unbundling, which would see BT's network opened up to other operators, has been a bone of contention between the telco, Oftel and the Internet industry for years, with the government having weighed in on the role in recent months. It is regarded as crucial to opening up competition and reducing the costs of Internet access. The original agreement, which had unbundling scheduled for July 2001, was widely criticised by industry and government alike for being too late.

In an historic agreement between European leaders gathered in Lisbon for the two-day conference, the heads of state agreed to the new timetable and a raft of other measures, which are set to put the EU at the forefront of the Internet revolution. "This is an endorsement from the highest political level," claimed an EC spokesman. "The need for greater competition has been fully endorsed in a clear, political commitment from heads of state, including Tony Blair, that unbundling should be done by the end of 2000."

Oftel said it was unaware of Blair's actions. "We've not been briefed on any changes," claimed an Oftel spokesman.

The watchdog itself could be due for a radical overhaul: The summit also agreed to simplify the regulatory framework for European telecommunications. "It may affect the way Oftel grants licences for example," said the EC spokesman. "We are going to make it far less cumbersome for new operators to get licences."

Member states also agreed to ensure that all schools in Europe have access to the Internet by the end of 2001, and that all teachers need to be skilled in the use of the Internet by the end of 2002.

In addition, it was agreed that member states should adopt the EC's electronic commerce directive -- which will provide the legal framework for e-commerce -- by the end of the year.

The EC is to look into ways of making it easier for burgeoning European Net firms to start up by lowering the costs of set up and removing unnecessary red tape.

It will launch, by June this year, a benchmarking system to assess the amount of time and costs involved in setting up a company, the ease with which firms can get venture capital, and the number of graduate training opportunities available.

BT was unavailable for comment at press time.

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

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