Oftel faces wrath of European Commission

Oftel may be tried by the European Courts of Justice
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

Telecoms regulator Oftel finds itself under scrutiny Tuesday as the European Commission considers whether the watchdog has breached European telecoms rules.

The EC's telecoms directorate has written to the UK government to request details of how Oftel is resolving an interconnect dispute between established network operators and telecommunications services provider INMS. It follows complaints from INMS that the watchdog has been dragging its heels on the issue of indirect access. If the EC finds Oftel in breach of the rules, the UK could find itself defending the watchdog in the European Courts of Justice.

The dispute revolves around the question of whether dominant operators like Vodafone (quote: VOD) and BT (quote: BT) should offer indirect access -- allowing new entrants to the mobile arena to offer services. Indirect access would allow users to switch from their existing mobile network provider -- by dialling in a short code -- to an alternative provider "saving customers 40 percent on existing daytime national calls", according to David Stanfield, director of regulatory affairs at INMS.

"We approached Vodafone and they said they weren't obliged to offer indirect access so we took it to the regulator in March 98," says Stanfield. Under EC rules, Oftel then had six months to resolve the issue, which they failed to do Stanfield claims. "It still doesn't have a resolution," he says.

Oftel admits the dispute has taken time to resolve. "We have started work but it has taken longer to resolve than normal," an Oftel spokesman says. "When we looked at this request to mandate indirect access we decided to look at it in conjunction with our review of competition in the mobile market."

Stanfield has already accused Oftel of bias at a public hearing on the future of telecoms rules held in Brussels earlier this month. He is delighted the EC has taken up the case. "Thank goodness there is an organisation you can turn to when your own regulator won't regulate to ensure there is a level playing field," he says.

The Oftel spokesman claims the watchdog is currently compiling a response to the EC request but is reluctant to comment on the outcome. "It is for the EC to decide if there has been a breach of the rules," he says.

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