Oftel and e-minister criticised over unbundling

Regulator and Hewitt come in for criticism over unbundling fiasco

More criticism for telecoms regulator Oftel Thursday as the Trade and Industry select committee continues its investigation into local loop unbundling.

Unbundling is rapidly becoming an albatross round Oftel's neck as it tries to push forward the complicated procedures necessary to allow other operators access to BT's telephone lines. In an interview with ZDNet News, director general David Edmonds admitted it should have been started up to two years earlier. High profile companies like Telewest, ntl, WorldCom and KPNQwest are abandoning the process blaming slow rollout and high cost.

MP Martin O'Neill, head of the Select Committee, has some strong words for the watchdog: "I found they were complacent and I found that appalling. In many cases they were reactive rather than proactive," he says. It is not just over the issue of unbundling that Oftel has let consumers down says O'Neil.

"The price of making a phone call from a callbox has doubled and they didn't seem bothered about it. It is a well-kept secret where they hide out and people don't turn to Oftel with complaints very often," he says.

The Select Committee decided to investigate the unbundling process following a number of complaints from operators keen to get their hands on BT's copper. The committee is in the process of deciding whether BT's decision to open up only 10 percent of its of its 6000 exchanges is sufficient in ensure competition.

The Committee is also investigating claims that there is not enough space in some of BT's larger exchanges. "We felt BT weren't forced to do enough quickly enough and the general feeling is that more could have been done to force BT's hand earlier. "Unless a company is forced it is not going to give up its competitive edge," says O'Neill.

Oftel is not the only one blamed for the unbundling fiasco. Wednesday it was the turn of the e-minister Patricia Hewitt to go before the committee, claiming personal credit for moving the process along. O'Neill is not convinced.

"Some of the operators wanting to get into the exchanges felt the process has been allowed to drift and the minister wasn't able to satisfy the committee that the drift had been accelerated simply because of what she had done," he says.

In his opinion Oftel only started getting tough on BT after the European Union made it clear that failure to stick to unbundling timetables would result in legal action.

O'Neill hopes Hewitt has learned from her mistakes. "She has learnt from local loop unbundling that you really have to keep on the case. It is not wholly her responsibility but when push comes to shove she has to be seen to be standing with the regulator to drive competition forward," he says.

Tuesday it is BT's turn to face the wrath of the select committee.

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