Blair called to stick to telecoms commitment

Did Tony Blair know what he was committing to in March? Does he realise that Britain's chance of competing effectively is at stake?
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

Earlier this year Tony Blair made a commitment to opening up the local loop by the beginning of 2001 and did so on an international stage surrounded by his European counterparts. As the deadline approaches Internet firm GTS called on Blair to clarify the commitment.

At a heads of state conference in Portugal in March the prime minister signed up to an European Commission regulation calling on incumbent telcos across Europe to open their networks to competitors by the beginning of 2001. Since then the EC has worked hard to make the regulation legally binding.

Telecoms ministers signed a further commitment to the timetable at the beginning of October.

But director of corporate development at GTS Iain Osborne believes it is time for the prime minister to step into what has become an increasingly complex row. "At Lisbon the PM said it was a major priority," says Osborne. Since then however, both Oftel and e-minister Patricia Hewitt have defended BT's decision to delay unbundling until July. Both argue that the wording of the EC document means Britain needs only a 'legal framework' for unbundling by January.

"The spin put on it by BT, Oftel and the government is a sign of defensiveness," says Osborne. "It is up to Tony Blair to take a stand and say that is not what we meant."

A spokesman for the European Information Society commission confirms the date for services to roll out is 1st January 2001. "Our regulation is clear and it is one date for all," he says.

Unbundling will bring down the cost of broadband services. Business ISPs like GTS currently lease lines from BT and other European incumbents. According to Osborne renting a 2Mb line in France currently costs 8,000 francs (£716) while wholesale DSL costs 1,600 francs (£143): five times cheaper. "That is before unbundling has kicked in. After unbundling, costs will come down even farther."

For those operators participating in the first wave of unbundling in the UK, the process has been frustrating. Oftel and BT are only offering around 350 exchanges for them to colocate DSL equipment representing a tiny proportion of the 10,000 exchanges in the UK.

BT says there is not enough space in many of the others but Osborne complains that Oftel has not sought independent verification of BT's claims. "Saying there is no space and ringing their hands is not good enough for businesses or for consumers. Oftel should resolve that issue and not stand in the sidelines. This is no longer a telecoms issue, it is an issue of national competitiveness."

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