Ofcom hires sheriff to keep broadband peace

The appointment of a telecoms adjudicator is designed to stimulate broadband competition in the UK

The communications regulator Ofcom has announced further details of its strategy to drive the adoption of broadband in the UK.

Four years ago, the regulator set a goal of ensuring that 512Kbps broadband was installed in 15 per cent of homes in UK -- a goal it now claims to have achieved. Now it wants to turn its attention to the next generation of broadband products and services hitting the market.

Ofcom's most important strategic goal, published on Tuesday, is to ensure that local loop unbundling (LLU) happens, and it is hiring an independent telecoms adjudicator to ensure that unbundling goes smoothly.

The man appointed to the newly-created role of telecoms adjudicator will be Peter Black, who has previously worked at BT, NTL and Thus. Black will now be overseeing several of his former employers, as all three -- along with nine others -- have signed up to Ofcom's independent adjudicator scheme.

The adjudicator will be in charge of overseeing the LLU process and resolving the day-to-day operational issues that arise, according to Ofcom. The watchdog has once again opted for a path of non-interference, saying that formally regulating the process would take up too much time and delay the unbundling unnecessarily.

BT, which recently cut its charges for LLU by 35 per cent, has agreed to abide by the adjudicator's decision and most of the other operators have signed "bilateral agreements" with BT to help get LLU moving.

Even with BT and the operators onside, at least for the moment, Black faces a tricky challenge. LLU has been a big disappointment in the UK so far, with just Easynet and Bulldog attempting to compete with BT Wholesale by installing their own broadband equipment in BT's local telephone exchanges.

Other telcos have accused BT of obstructing LLU through excessively high charges -- a claim that gained credibility after Ofcom said in May that BT should cut its LLU pricing.

Black will have to keep BT's rivals happy because they have been keenly awaiting his appointment.

"The adjudicator needs to be committed to the process of LLU, and will have to put solutions in place quickly to get the process moving again," said a spokesman for one of the operators, who warned that strength and determination will be needed to get all parties working together.