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BT network upgrade sparks competition fears

Secrecy shrouding BT's 21st Century Network project is hampering rival broadband operators who want to compete, says Tiscali. BT denies the charge
Written by Graeme Wearden, Contributor on

BT has been accused of damaging broadband competition in Britain by failing to reveal full details of its ambitious plans to build a nationwide IP-based network.

Mary Turner, chief executive of ISP and broadband provider Tiscali UK, told the trade and industry select committee last week that there was "very little clarity" about BT's plans for its 21st Century Network (21CN), and that this is hampering her own firm's efforts to launch high-speed services in Britain.

"The 21st Century Network is still enshrined in secrecy… we need a debate with clarity and accuracy," said Turner.

Like many of BT's rivals, Tiscali is considering using local-loop unbundling (LLU) to wrest control of telephone lines from BT. After years of delays, recent action from Ofcom to force down BT's LLU prices has made the process more attractive. However, 21CN could now deter some operators from plunging into unbundling.

"Our payback time for LLU is two to three years. That's exactly the time when 21CN will be rolled out," said Turner. "We need to know with confidence that our investment in LLU will not be made redundant [by 21CN]"

BT expects to start migrating millions of customers from legacy networks to IP networks in 2006, and plans to have moved 50 percent by 2009.

Joe Kelly, BT Wholesale's director of communications, rejected the claim that it is covering 21CN with a cloak of secrecy. Kelly pointed out that the telco is running a consultation exercise, called "Consult21", where he said the industry can learn about BT's plans and give their opinions.

"We are being more open, more transparent, and more inclusive than any other telco in the world," Kelly claimed.

Communications regulator Ofcom is currently running a review into 21CN, after a number of BT's rivals expressed concerns.

Kelly said that he would "probably concede that things had been slow to start" in the way of consultation, but insisted that BT was now putting considerable resources into the process.

A key issue for other UK telecoms operators is whether it will be easy for them to connect their networks to 21CN. Kelly said a working group was still examining how 21CN would interconnect both with legacy networks and with other IP networks.

Turner's concerns are particularly relevant as the LLU process is being hampered by the poor state of BT's own systems. Last month Peter Black, Ofcom's Telecoms Adjudicator, reported that operational problems were preventing thousands of telephone lines from being unbundled successfully.

Broadband networking company EasyNet is one of the few firms to persist with unbundling over the past few years. It believes BT should actually build 21CN via the same process that its rivals have to use when attempting to unbundle lines and get their networking equipment into BT exchanges.

"If the process is broken, we should get BT to use it themselves. Then they'd fix it," said Justin Fielder, EasyNet's director of business development. Fielder pointed out that EasyNet used LLU to build its own IP network, which now includes 240 of BT's 6,500 local exchanges.

Kelly acknowledged that BT still had work to do to improve the LLU process, but rejected the suggestion that it should be used for the rollout of 21CN.

"LLU is an access technology. 21CN is a different kind of animal, a complete transformation of our infrastructure."

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