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Jane Wakefield: Oftel - watchdog or lapdog?

In the beginning there was a telco... and it was downhill from there really

When BT emerged from the ashes of the GPO in 1984 it found itself with a new bosom buddy -- Oftel. Postman Pat had his black and white cat but in the privatised world of BT the red vans were replaced by blue ones with corporate logos and the cat gave way to a watchdog.

The newly appointed regulator was given an office and several thousands tons of paper which it was commanded to fill up with bureaucratic nonsense at every opportunity.

Sixteen years down the line I thought it was fair enough to go to Oftel and ask whether the watchdog is happy that BT has been acting in the consumers interests in relation to Internet services. After all, the fact that BT still has a stranglehold on the local loop and owns 85 percent of all phone lines in the UK does not seem to me a particularly impressive statistic for an organisation set up to ensure competition for the consumer.

So I was rather surprised when the question met with silence in the Oftel press room. Apparently it was not as easy a question to answer as I had assumed. In fact officials had to be consulted and word eventually came back that the answer was "When they don't act in the consumers' interest, we act."

As an answer it bears little resemblance to the question. If politicians have a penchant for going round the houses when answering tough questions, then Oftel has gone round the ring road. It is a government agency, so I shouldn't be surprised by the flaky response. But when you consider that Oftel's raison d'etre is to serve the consumer, its reluctance to give a simple answer to a simple question becomes rather horrifying.

Actually ZDNet has lots of questions for Oftel, based largely on its slow reaction to industry demands on Internet access. What I really wanted to do was to put these questions directly to the director general David Edmonds, but apparently he is not prepared to talk to us until Oftel has something new to say on the issues.

Most of the industry would love to hear a new line from Oftel, which up until now seems to have been reading largely from the script given to it by BT. Oftel has always remained the diplomat in relation to questions of blame and its refusal to openly criticise the telco has not silenced the whisperers, who claim it could be more aptly described as a lapdog rather than a watchdog.

To give Oftel its due it did act on unmetered access, albeit somewhat late in the day. It was relatively quick to realise that the industry was totally unhappy with SurfTime as a way of delivering unmetered and was responsible for forcing BT to roll out Friaco. On broadband it has been less successful. Its timetable for BT to hand over the keys to its exchanges has not impressed the European Commission which wants the regulator to bring the date forward to the end of this year.

Although Oftel describes the timetable as a "challenging" one for BT, many industry experts tell me the process could happen much more quickly. It begins to sound like Oftel took BT aside after school and said: "This is your punishment for being a monopoly but we will try and make it as painless for you as possible."

Oftel proudly tells me that it was David Edmonds personally that had the idea of unbundling the local loop. Wow... give that man a lightbulb over his head. It takes a stroke of genius to come up with the idea of breaking a monopoly by allowing other companies access to its services.

Edmonds had this earth-shattering idea two years ago and it has taken until then to get where we are today. Which is? Not very far. The first exchanges are being allocated to rival telcos and this process has been described as a mess. It doesn't help that the operators are bickering over who goes where but I guess after sixteen years of monopoly they are pretty keen to get their hands on BT's precious copper.

Rather foolishly Oftel initially allowed the operators to decide among themselves who should go in which exchanges, which is rather like giving a bunch of seven-year-olds the keys to a sweet shop with the advice "share nicely". The watchdog realised swiftly that this system is not going to work and is currently working out its own procedure for dishing out exchange keys.

It tells me that this "will take time" which is a fairly standard Oftel response. One of the main problems with the regulator is that its procedures are out of touch with Internet time. Every time it has an idea there is a consultation paper, a set time for industry to respond, blah, blah, blah. The machinery of Oftel turns very slowly and although I believe it does genuinely want to do the best for the consumer, it is not serving the consumer in the best way it could.

The Internet has traditionally spurned regulation, but I think it may be time to give it a regulator that can act quickly and in its interests. With more and more people connecting to the Web, the job that Oftel took up sixteen years ago has changed radically. Telecoms is no longer simply about voice but about data, services, unmetered, narrowband, broadband, e-commerce, security and many other issues.

It's a huge burden for a telecoms regulator to take on, and as more and more access comes through mobile and TV, it is an area that is growing by the day. An independent body should be set up to pick up the unbundling torch that Oftel lit two years ago. An independent body that is prepared to publicly criticise BT if it makes the inevitable transition from monopoly to just another telco any more difficult than it has to be.

On Tuesday, telecoms ministers -- including our own e-minister Patricia Hewitt -- will gather to vote on the unbundling timetable and add political weight to the EC's determination to end telecoms monopoly across Europe. Hopefully they will vote to unbundle the local loop by the end of this year and hopefully Oftel will come up with a way of forcing BT to go along with this. Then we can go into the year 2001 with real hope that cheap, competitive Internet access is just around the corner.

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