A furious row is set to erupt next month when Oftel decides whether or not rival operators should have unescorted access to BT's local exchanges if they are taking part in local-loop unbundling (LLU).
The issue is crucial to the issue of LLU -- and could determine whether other companies can afford to compete with BT by selling wholesale ADSL packages. BT has already claimed that Oftel's consultation process is "flawed", and accuses the regulator of proposing measures that would seriously threaten the security of BT's network.
But rival operators have said Oftel is acting correctly, and in a way that will ensure more competition in the UK's telecommunications market. They want unescorted access because it is cheaper.
Under LLU, other telecoms firms can install their equipment in a local exchange and offer services such as ADSL to homes and offices. Back in October, Oftel ruled that such operators are allowed to place their kit in the same part of the local exchange as BT -- a process called co-mingling. Co-mingling is very popular with LLU operators because they don't have to pay for a separate room to be set up within or near an exchange.
The watchdog also issued a draft direction that operators who install equipment in a local exchange should be allowed unescorted access to the exchange.
A final decision is expected in December. From the feedback that Oftel has already received it is clear that the regulator will enrage BT if it continues to support unescorted access -- and attract similar wrath from LLU operators if it changes its position.
Oftel has been sent comments from BT and four operators who are keen to participate in LLU -- Bulldog Communications, Easynet, Kingston and Niact.
BT is adamant that it is unacceptable for LLU operators, and the contractors they would employ, to be able to enter a local exchange whenever they want without being accompanied by BT's own staff.
In its response to the draft directive, BT told Oftel that, "Such access would constitute a significant threat to the security and integrity of the BT network and represents an unjustified and unreasonable interference with BT's rights to the peaceful enjoyment of its own property". BT also believes it was wrong of Oftel to split the issue of co-mingling and third-party access to the exchange.
LLU operators were delighted with Oftel's draft direction in favour of unescorted third-party access, and Bulldog went as far as to accuse BT of deliberately inventing security concerns. In its comments, Bulldog insists that co-mingling will only succeed if operators have unescorted access -- and aren't forced to pay BT a supervision fee every time they want to repair, replace or modify their own kit. Oftel has ruled that co-mingling is an acceptable form of local-loop unbundling under the EC regulation relating to LLU. This means that BT must provide rival operators with the same standard of service as it enjoys itself. "Only co-mingling with effective access allows LLU operators to have such 'equivalent facilities' on similar timescales," said Bulldog. Bulldog also insists that it is inconsistent of BT to oppose unescorted third-party access to its exchanges, when it lets its own contractors have unescorted access. It claims that it will use the same contractors as BT uses currently. "The access processes currently employed by BT are not complex or based on restrictive qualification criteria and thus any attempt by BT to change the criteria or processes should be rejected by Oftel," wrote Bulldog in its comments to Oftel. BT continues to dispute that this analysis is correct. "The relationship between an operator and BT and more particularly BT and an operator's contractor is quite different relationship to that which exists between BT and one of its own contractors," it insists. It also claims that contractors are not usually used to work on live equipment or live circuits. In its response, BT also claims that it will incur significant costs in making its equipment secure if unescorted third-party access was allowed. "BT's arrangements often preclude the physical locking of individual cabinets... BT has historically protected its equipment by installing physical security controls on the perimeter of its buildings," it said. An Oftel spokeswoman refused to speculate on the likely reaction to its forthcoming final decision, but confirmed that it should be published in December. Critics claim that until BT's monopoly of the local loop is broken, broadband will remain either unavailable or too expensive for many. BT points to the millions of pounds it has spend on LLU only to see very few requests for unbundled lines, and insists that the regulatory framework prevents it charging any less. See the Broadband News Section for the latest on cable modems, ADSL, satellite and other high-speed access technologies. Have your say instantly, and see what others have said. Click on the TalkBack button and go to the Telecoms forum. Let the editors know what you think in the Mailroom. And read other letters.