BT and Oftel argue over unbundling timetable

Local loop schedule attacked by critics

Confusion reigned Tuesday as BT and Oftel attempted to justify the timetable for unbundling the local loop.

Unbundling the local loop -- which will allow other operators access to BT's network -- has been timetabled to happen in 2001. Critics argue it should happen sooner as it is only then that a fully competitive telecoms market can exist in the UK. Oftel has admitted that unbundling is key to ensure the best "choice, quality and value for money" for the consumer.

Oftel claims BT submitted the timetable. "BT gave us the timescale and we are quite happy with it," an Oftel spokesman said. Citing "technical difficulties" as the reason why unbundling would take so long, the spokesman was unable to offer any detail on what these difficulties were.

According to BT it was Oftel which set the date. "Oftel set that timescale but it is not set in stone," a BT spokesman claimed. On how the relationship between Oftel and BT works in deciding such matters he revealed. "They [Oftel] will take from BT what we tell them."

He claims the delay is necessary for a series of reasons. "It will take time to decide on the level of security, who has access to the exchanges, etcetera but the biggest issue will be testing of equipment to prevent new equipment interfering with ours. And thirdly, we have to work out how to bill and manage customers, decide who owns the customer and who is responsible if something goes wrong," he said.

Adam Daum, analyst with research firm GartnerGroup believes there is another reason BT is happy to wait until 2001. "When the local loop is unbundled it will force BT's hand. They will have to introduce universal unmetered access so as not to make it worth anyone else's while. That way they will end up keeping control of the local loop," he said.

BT is set to announce its financial results later this week, amid mounting speculation the telco giant will float its Internet business.

Daum is not convinced. "There has been speculation because over the last few months some high level people in the Internet division have left and there is a feeling that there is more money to be made in Internet start-ups. Personally, I think it is extremely unlikely as BT view its Internet company as a core division as it moves its network from voice to data," he said.