Oftel: BT's Surftime is anti-competitive

The watchdog slams BT for anti-competitive behaviour following a complaint from MCI WorldCom...

Oftel has told ZDNet that British Telecom is guilty of anti-competitive behaviour pointing the finger at its beleagured unmetered access service, Surftime.

The telecoms watchdog has come in for criticism in the past for not showing enough teeth in its regulation of BT. It has also been criticised for being slow to respond to calls for change in the Internet market, but has repeatedly claimed it needs complaints to investigate specific issues.

That complaint came from would-be Net champion MCI WorldCom, arguing that Surftime needs a wholesale equivalent to allow healthy competition. Following the complaint Oftel ordered BT to get its act together, swiftly.

Significantly Oftel agrees that Surftime is anti-competitive. Worryingly it is only willing to speak openly about the situation once an official complaint has been received.

"We agree with WorldCom that BT should supply a wholesale product," says an Oftel spokesman. In its draft direction, Oftel makes it clear that BT must roll out a wholesale version of Surftime with a "pricing methodology that is reasonable" by June 1.

AOL has long campaigned for cheaper unmetered access and greater competition and believes Oftel has acted correctly. "Oftel has come good and reflected the concerns of the telecoms and Internet industries," says an AOL spokesman. "This is a very significant step forward for every ISP in this country and enables consumers to have true diversity and choice."

AOL agrees that Surftime is "fundamentally anti-competitive" and looks forward to "significantly cheaper costs" on the back of Oftel's ruling.

Oftel is still in consultation with industry about the details of the package but experts predict a variety of Surftime clones from other telcos by the summer.

Surftime has had something of a troubled history: the original version was scrapped following complaints from ISPs. There were more complaints following the hasty rollout of Surftime II on the back of free offers from Alta Vista and ntl. Oftel rebuked BT for this. "Oftel is concerned that other operators were not given sufficient advance notice of these developments by BT. It did not allow them to plan and introduce their own products to compete with Surftime," it says.

BT claims it is willing to talk in "principle" about a wholesale version of Surftime, although it believes such a product would put too much strain on its network. It is also concerned that the flat-rate interconnect agreement WorldCom and Oftel is calling for is without precedent. "There is no model for that anywhere in the world and while we are not opposed to it in principle we need to talk about the detail of it," a BT spokesman says.

The telco is submitting a response to Oftel on the issue and is reluctant to discuss the details of this. It remains defiant, claiming a wholesale version of Surftime is already available. "We feel that the building blocks are there for ISPs and other operators to develop their own version of Surftime, " the spokesman says.

AOL's spokesman is not convinced and awaits BT's response. "The ball is in BT's court now," he says.

BT's latest set of 'restructuring' announcements seems they have cottoned on to voice over IP, and are now racing ahead to become dominant in that market. Go with Guy Kewney to read the news comment at AnchorDesk UK.

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