BT and Oftel disregard Blair's wishes

First BT told Chancellor Gordon Brown to butt out over unbundling, now it seems the PM is in for the same treatment. Jane Wakefield reports

BT and its watchdog Oftel, said Monday the timetable for unbundling the local loop remains unchanged despite Tony Blair's commitment to a Dec 2000 deadline.

The two will press ahead with the July 2001 deadline, seemingly against Blair's wishes.

At an EU summit to promote the "knowledge-based" economy held in Lisbon last week, leaders from across Europe agreed that the need for Europe-wide unbundling -- in which incumbent telcos are forced to open their networks to other operators -- was urgent. Tony Blair was among the heads of state to sign up to a December 2000 deadline.

But, according to BT, the date for UK unbundling remains as July 2001 and it played down Blair's Lisbon summit decision. "The conclusions say 'working towards' a December deadline not 'introduce'," says a spokesman.

Similarly Oftel claims July 2001 remains the "final deadline". The watchdog says "it would love to see" unbundling happen this year but has yet to assess BT's report on how long the process will take. It has introduced a couple of new dates for BT. Triallists -- operators wishing to take over local loop services -- will be appointed in April and bids for unbundling will begin in September.

Industry players remain sceptical of BT's willingness to move faster, with AOL voicing its concern over the pair's apparent disregard for the PM's wishes. AOL has long campaigned for speedy unbundling of the local loop alongside its lobby for unmetered telephone calls. While it is pleased to see governments recognising the importance of a competitive telecoms market, it questions how much substance lies behind the rhetoric. "How will it translate into action over the next nine months? asks a spokesman.

Bob Jones, chairman of Internet appliance firm Equiinet is angry the government has only now got behind the issue. "Where were they two or three years ago? It is a big disappointment the process wasn't started a long time ago, then we wouldn't be fretting over whether it happens in December or July," he says, accusing the government of failing to understand the issue. "At this relatively late stage it is just headline grabbing rather than having the industry's interests at heart."

Jones is concerned that it is impractical to change the timetable now and believes it is more important BT is forced to adhere to the July deadline. "It does take time to plan an all-be-it very late timescale. What is important now is that BT absolutely adheres to its July deadline."

Guy Kewney thinks BT is simply making excuses. Go to AnchorDesk UK for his opinion and the news comment.

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