Despite DTI attempts to simplify standards on phones, faxes and modems, confusion reigns, says Stephen Pritchard

It is little more than a decade since changing a telephone meant a visit from a GPO engineer. Today, the range of plug-in phones, fax machines and modems is huge: 14,000 devices have been granted a green BABT approval sticker since 1981.

Prices of approved equipment have fallen in the past few years, especially for modems. But the cheapest equipment is likely to be unapproved - carrying an alarming red triangle or even no sticker at all. Most of these products are "grey", or unofficial imports, mostly from North America.

With some exceptions, such as cordless phones (which must comply with rules from both BABT and the Radio Communications Agency), most unapproved products operate perfectly well in the UK - although the user has little comeback if they do not. And the chance of being prosecuted for using one is slim indeed.

According to the Department of Trade and Industry, the explanation is simple: much unapproved equipment would pass the UK tests if importers submitted it to BABT. But for low-margin products such as modems, it is often not worth the candle. It is easier to let the customers take the risks.

The Government recognises this, and is reacting by simplifying the standards. Safety and other essential standards will not be reduced, but an approval mark will no longer guarantee that the equipment works as it should. Anyone buying a phone or fax currently enjoys a level of protection unknown, for example, with computers. The green dot certifies safety and functionality. The new testing mechanism concentrates on safety, of users and of the network.

The new rules should bring British equipment in line with that sold on the Continent. As part of preparations for a European single market in communications, scheduled for 1998, the European Commission has drafted Common Technical Requirements for communications equipment which in time will replace the British Standards now used by BABT. In theory, that means equipment bought in one European country will eventually be guaranteed to work in any other.

But here the red and green dots blur into a murky shade of grey. There is equipment on which European standards have come together - notably GSM (digital) mobile phones and ISDN digital telephone services. These will carry a new "CE" mark (with an X confusingly signifying approval).

But for non-digital equipment, the new British standards may or may not be the same as the European ones. Other EC countries have dragged their heels on changing the rules. The UK, which is probably more serious about standardisation than any other country, has decided to press ahead. Initially these will be for modems and for "non-voice" equipment, such as faxes or videophones. But as the Commission has yet to come up with final standards for all products itself, these will be no more than approximations of the European requirements.

The communications industry nevertheless hopes that these "essential requirements," in DTI parlance, will increase the range of products available and reduce the time it takes to bring out new equipment.

"Where the reforms will help an awful lot is in introducing a product to the marketplace much more quickly," says Tony Sellers, managing director of Andest, a British maker of modems and telephone equipment. Nigel Richards, general manager for communications products at Panasonic UK, agrees that life should become simpler. "The approvals process here is fairly high in terms of costs and engineering resources."

But along with many in the industry, Richards is unsure that a relaxation of the rules will bring clear-cut benefits to consumers. A phone is "not a can-of-baked-beans product", he warns. "By the time you find out it doesn't work, it's too late. It will mean the consumer will have to be extremely careful in buying a product. Our intention is to carry on with the same level of testing as before."

Furthermore, phones are increasingly being customised for local markets, with special keys for special services: this will allow manufacturers to make different models for different countries and, if they want, to set different prices.

In fact, BABT will still offer testing to manufacturers, and a number of retailers and distributors, including Dixons, will only stock products that meet the old requirements. The current two-tier system of approved and unapproved equipment will be replaced by three layers: unapproved; approved to the new, simple standards; and approved to both the old and new standards. One day the confusion may lift, and we will be able to use a telephone or a modem with equal ease in any European country. But don't hold your breath.