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Jane Wakefield: No room at the inn

BT takes the role of the mean-spirited inn keeper in the telco's nativity play

Two thousand years ago a pregnant woman and her somewhat bemused husband failed to find an inn for the night, creating a legend about a mean landlord that in turn would provide the Christmas card industry with a perfect image of a stable, a baby and some cows for centuries to come.

Cue the 21st century and swap the inn for a telephone exchange in Barnsley and the Holy Land landlord for BT and you have a modern Christmas tale that would break any heart. For BT is effectively telling telcos that there is no room at its inn this Christmas or for a very long time to come.

OK, I admit that the link between the baby Jesus and BT is a tenuous one and the tale of unbundling the local loop is unlikely to inspire people in quite the same way, but it has to be said that our incumbent telco is not acting in the spirit of Christmas.

The no room at the inn line (or lie depending on your view) is the latest excuse from a telco which has done little else but invent pretexts all year. BT did not want to open its exchanges and yet it was required by law to do so. And while it had no choice but to comply it made sure nothing was straightforward.

The delays and excuses over unbundling led BT straight to the House of Commons to explain its actions. It was a fitting end to the year that the BT bully boys, with Sir Peter Bonfield playing the role of Gripper Stebson, found themselves hauled before the government to answer supposedly tough questions about why it had repeatedly let consumers and the industry down.

Except that the questions weren't tough and BT, as always, managed to wriggle out of it.

Bonfield might have taken lessons from Mark Anthony in the way he responded to the questions. BT's relationship to Oftel was "professional" he said. BT's dealings with the industry were "professional", BT's attitude to the unbundling process was "professional". And without actually saying it he made his feelings about the watchdog abundantly clear -- the timetable Oftel and BT had initially agreed was changed, he repeatedly said. The implication being that if things were going wrong it was most likely Oftel's fault for changing its mind (following pressure from Europe) on when it actually wanted BT to open up its loop.

BT clearly doesn't want to hand over the keys to its exchanges and no-one can expect it to. It is, as it is so very fond of telling us, a business and as such has responsibility to its shareholders. But the fact is that BT was practically given carte blanche to run the telecoms market in the UK when it was privatised 15 years ago.

Cable gave it a little run for its money and new telcos stole business from it in the international calls market but 15 years on and BT still has a strangehold on that all important last mile of copper running between homes and its oh so very full exchanges. In fact it owns 80 percent of those lines.

Footnote to Oftel: you guys have made an absolutely great job of creating competition. Well done and Happy Christmas.

With the advent of the Internet this situation was obviously intolerable. Lots of people were keen to get Internet access and BT made an absolute fortune out of the ISPs that provided them with it. So in his wisdom, Oftel boss David Edmonds decided BT must allow other operators into its exchanges to offer services.

Edmonds has dined out aplenty on tales of what a great idea it was but when you bear in mind he had the brainwave four years ago it doesn't strike you as a swift execution... I suspect the Internet landscape in the UK would be a very different one today if it had.

And Oftel has been incredibly lenient on BT, allowing it to set the timetable (until the European Commission turned round and said they had to do it more quickly), taking BT's excuses as gospel and suggesting it sort out problems with the industry between themselves.

Now that clearly was a recipe for disaster and last month Oftel finally admitted things weren't going smoothly and set down some ground rules. It decided to investigate BT's claims there was no room for other operators and found that seven out of eight exchanges BT said were full had in fact got plenty of room.

How would BT answer that one? Bonfield told the select committee that BT and Oftel obviously had a different definition of space. In the most risible response of the day Bonfield echoed RailTrack's "wrong kind of snow" excuse when he said that it was important to find the right kind of space.

I had no idea that space was such an ill-defined concept. Now had they been talking about the final frontier kind of space I could understand that it is a difficult topic. But space as in no room is not so hard to grasp I would suggest. And I bet if someone came along and said "BT, here's a box that you can put in your exchanges which will make you oodles of cash if only you could find room for it" what's the betting a small island would be found.

BT's dealings over unbundling illustrate perfectly how obstructive the organisation can be when it can't have its own way. It has been an annus horribilis for BT and the only thing that surprises me is that Sir Bonfield hasn't been locked up. I hold BT singularly responsible for the unmetered disaster, for failing to offer a suitable product to ISPs. SurfTime robbed ISPs blind and while I accept that they should have thought more carefully about their business plans, they had little choice but to take SurfTime if they wanted to stay competitive.

Similarly with broadband, BT has acted monstrously. Delaying, delaying and delaying, claiming it had to get it right before roll out (and not at all protecting its ISDN business, of course). Then when it finally rolls out it is not at all right.

Thousands of people still waiting to be connected and millions never able to get their hands on it because they live too far away. And then BT has the cheek to turn round and say it is "passionate" about broadband. For ISPs keen to participate they are dependent on BT and its cock-ups until next summer when (if) the local loop unbundles.

It is interesting to note that the cable operators -- the only real competition to BT -- have managed a far smoother rollout of its broadband offerings and ntl recently slashed the price of its cable modem service to £19.99 per month. Both ntl and Telewest have dumped their ADSL plans.

With 50 percent of UK homes having access to cable and the rest benefiting from an unbundled loop next year, perhaps 2001 will be the year BT finally has to look for another job. By July I fully expect to see BT registering itself as a charity while Oftel leads the cheerleaders outside the first unbundled exchange -- in that carpark in Barnsley.

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