Oftel unveils controversial ADSL plans

Despite looming EC regulations, new Oftel unbundling guidelines 'stick to original plan'

Oftel has released its official guidelines for unbundling the local loop, but the rules appear to contravene a European Community directive.

Oftel itself admits the draft guidelines are "basically sticking to the original plan" for unbundling, with unbundled products available in volume by mid-2001. The excitingly-titled "Access Network Facilities" is the first time the telecoms watchdog has issued concrete guidelines for allowing competitive access to British Telecom's (quote: BT) local copper wiring. (See the document's full text here.)

However, an EC draft regulation issued just two weeks ago appears to require a more rapid timetable for bringing unbundled products to consumers. The directive requires incumbent telecommunications companies -- former government monopolies such as BT, Deutsche Telekom and France Telecom -- to offer new entrants access to the local telephone system by January 2001, and for unbundled products to be available to consumers by then, according to an EC spokesman.

Local loop unbundling, while not essential for voice-call competition, is considered essential for the introduction of competitive high-speed online services such as ADSL.

For a company such as WorldCom or ntl to offer ADSL service today, they would have to buy the service wholesale from BT, and then resell the ADSL product. Once BT has unbundled the local loop, such companies will have direct access to the same phone wiring into consumers' homes that BT does.

Because unbundling is so important to companies' ability to offer advanced data services, ISPs and competitive telecommunications companies have roundly attacked BT for its sluggish progress in the unbundling process, and Oftel for its general approval of BT's plans.

The new rules are unlikely to pacify Oftel's critics. The watchdog's only change in stance appears to be that it now says unbundled products could begin to reach consumers at the beginning of 2001, even though BT's unbundled trials will only begin in January.

"The original plan still stands," said an Oftel spokeswoman. "Unbundled products will appear in volume from July, but will be trickling out from the beginning of the year."

Theoretically, competitive telcos could begin offering products to the public as soon as trials begin, the spokeswoman said. "Once the loop's been unbundled, it's up to the people that have leased it to take their plans forward and do what they want with it," she said.

Oftel said it believes its guidelines comply with the EC directive, but said the directive's details are unclear. Oftel had previously stated it believed the EC only required a legal framework for unbundling, and not actual connections or products, by the end of 2000.

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