Oftel to push for wholesale Midband?

The telco regulator is understood to be determined that BT must offer a wholesale version of its upcoming 128Kbps Internet access product to its retail rivals

BT could be required by Oftel to offer a wholesale version of Midband, the forthcoming 'sub-broadband' product that the telco has claimed will help to close Britain's broadband divide.

Sources close to the issue have told ZDNet UK that Oftel is unwilling to allow BT to monopolise the midband market, which could potentially consist of many millions of households.

Midband, which was announced by BT Retail chief executive Pierre Danon at last November's e-Summit, is based on ISDN and will give data rates of up to 128Kbps, and although it does not give a constant Web connection, it will provide always-on email.

Trials of Midband are due to start within weeks, but a commercial launch date has not been released by BT.

ZDNet UK understands that some senior figures within Oftel are determined that BT should not be the only midband retailer and that BT Wholesale must make the technology available to other Internet service providers on the same terms as it does to BT Retail.

At the e-Summit, Danon declined to speculate on whether BT would offer a wholesale version of Midband so that other ISPs could also sell it, as already happens with ADSL.

BT is now suggesting, though, that it might well decide to offer a wholesale Midband product, without the intervention of Oftel.

"Who knows? Any potential obligations to provide a midband product on a wholesale basis could be pre-empted by an inclination to do that anyway," a BT spokesman told ZDNet UK on Monday.

"The issue [of whether to offer a wholesale version of Midband] is still under consideration, and our wholesale people are au fait with Oftel's position," the BT spokesman added.

Officially, Oftel insists that any such decision is some way down the line, and could be sparked by a complaint from an ISP after Midband hits the market.

"At this stage, we don't know whether BT will decide to make a wholesale Midband product available," said an Oftel spokesman, adding that "If an operator thinks BT are developing a monopoly in the midband market and they want BT to offer a wholesale product, we would consider it as we would with any investigation".

There is another way that Midband could come under strutiny. Oftel will conduct a general review of the UK's broadband market this summer as it implements an EU telecoms directive, and it is likely that the whole issue of Midband will be considered as part of this review.

The potential market for Midband is huge, as 97 percent of households would potentially be able to access the technology. Danon estimated last November that BT's ADSL network will reach at least 80 percent of households, with further rollout dependent on "technological progress".

This suggests that for up to 17 percent of homes -- the equivalent of 3.5 million households -- Midband will be their only chance of getting anything like an affordable broadband service if they are also not served by cable firms.

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