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BT boss grilled by select committee on unbundling

Bonfield forced to explain why unbundling is taking so long... but it sounds like he didn't do his homework properly

BT dodges a full-on grilling about its role in opening up its network Tuesday, but doesn't seem sure of the facts and admits to getting some things wrong.

The telco was put on the defensive as the Trade and Industry select committee grilled managing director Sir Peter Bonfield over the way his company is handling unbundling the local loop. The committee was charged with investigating the process following repeated complaints from rival operators.

Bonfield claimed the telco was on schedule to meet the unbundling timetable and blamed Oftel for moving the goalposts. "We originally agreed a timetable in April but as a result of the EU [which decreed unbundled services must be in place by January next year] it was all brought forward six months by Oftel so I wouldn't be surprised if there are concerns," he said. "We implemented it in a professional way, but I cannot say hand on heart that we always got it right."

Head of the select committee, MP Martin O'Neill, asked Bonfield how cordial his relationship with Oftel was. "I got the impression that you weren't on David Edmonds Christmas list," he said. Bonfield described the relationship as "professional". "We are not being obstructive, we are just trying to make it work in a professional way," he said.

Bonfield had plenty of excuses for why there have been delays in getting operators into exchanges. Space has become a major issue as BT claims that there is simply no room for more equipment in some of the more popular exchanges. "We have to find out if a particular exchange has the right kind of space," said Bonfield. Challenged over why Oftel and BT are at odds over which exchanges have space Bonfield replied: "It depends on your definition of what is adequate space."

The BT boss denied that co-mingling -- in which operators share racks with BT's existing equipment -- would be the answer to space issue, claiming that he was not prepared to risk the mission critical network. "At all times I have to think about the integrity of the network," he said.

Energis (quote: EGS) in its submission to the select committee earlier in the day admitted it was cutting back its local loop investment as a result of the delays. Asked why the telco had to wait so long to be allocated an exchange, Bonfield claimed it was because planning permission was required to lay a cable across a road. A word in his ear from director of regulatory affairs Ian Morfett revealed this was incorrect -- in fact it was another operator -- Fibrenet -- affected by this.

Bonfield also bungled answers on how many exchanges BT would have ready by the summer initially claiming it would be 190 and later agreeing it would in fact be treble that. In order to ensure the unbundling process continues apace BT will have to undertake a massive hiring programme.

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