"Farcical". That is the conclusion of a government report into attempts to open up BT's exchanges and roll out nationwide broadband services.
The damning criticism comes from the Trade and Industry select committee set up last December to investigate local loop unbundling, the process by which other operators install equipment in BT's exchanges in order to roll out high-speed Internet services. The all-party committee scrutinised BT, Oftel and other operators in its investigation into the process, which has been beset by arguments, delays and technical hitches since it began.
"The blame for the delays and problems incurred to date must lie at the door of all participants," the report concludes, warning that if problems aren't sorted out immediately the UK will fall even farther behind. "We can only hope that the lessons from the process of LLU to date have been learnt. The UK cannot afford further delays."
This will be a harsh wake-up call for the government which is keen to see the UK as the best place for broadband by 2005. The committee "looks forward to hearing that the UK has indeed caught up with Germany and the Netherlands by the end of 2001" and recommends the government put pressure on the European Commission to keep a running check on broadband progress across Europe.
Oftel has been blamed for delaying the process and failing to sort out practical issues such as sharing out available space fairly. Its role is highlighted in the report. It criticises the regulator for being too distant from the process and not having enough technical knowledge to push things forward.
"We understand that Oftel has had little hands-on experience of the practicalities of LLU and that some senior officers had not even visited an exchange," the report states. "This sorry tale does not suggest a high level of administrative competence among those involved."
BT does not come out of the process smelling particularly good either. The report highlights the "near breakdown" in relationships between BT and other operators last autumn and states that the telco clearly "dragged its feet" over the process which it has always disagreed with.
The committee concludes that local loop unbundling is crucial if the government's broadband goals are to be realised but acknowledges that there are considerable challenges ahead before it is successfully implemented. If it doesn't cope with those challenges the committee warns the UK must face the wrath of the EC.
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