Cheap Net access top of gov't agenda

Cheaper Internet access is at the top of the government's e-agenda according to e-Minister Patricia Hewitt speaking Thursday at the Scrambling for Safety Conference in London.

The UK's first e-Minister claimed cost of peak hour access had "got to come down" but explained it was not her job to set prices. Hinting that high prices are stifling competition, the new e-Minister said it was her job to "drive competition... Getting costs down is a priority."

But despite her obvious understanding of the issues that have fuelled debate over BT's monopoly, she did not offer an explanation for how the government will make BT reduce its costs and unbundle the local loop to give other operators access to their network. For that, an explanation came from the chairman of the Campaign for Unmetered Telecommunications, Alistair Scott who believes the government will be forced to legislate.

The Regulatory Bill, governing the powers of regulators will be updated to give Oftel more power to force BTs hand according to Scott. "Oftel needs to concentrate more on services. By its own admission it has not really concerned itself with the end users," he said. Changes to the Regulatory Bill would force Oftel to take a tougher line on prices and local loop unbundling according to Scott.

Derek Wyatt, Labour MP and chairman of the All-Party Internet Group believes local loop unbundling is key to the development of the Internet and thinks it must be speeded up. "Oftel says local loop unbundling will happen in a year and a half which gives BT 18 months to get their next monopoly sorted," he said.

A BT spokesman claimed the telco supported the government on access. "We constantly review prices and are offering free weekend access via BT Internet," he said. On the issue of local loop unbundling, BT is less supportive: "BT doesn't believe handing over the keys of our exchange is the right way forward," he said.

Oftel is currently consulting industry on the issue of local loop unbundling. The consultation closes 30th September.