AT&T rings the changes on Europe's telecoms

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Europe's telecoms operators were bracing themselves yesterday for increased competition from a slimmed down AT&T, claiming the communications giant would be a far more focused, "fleet-footed" comp-

etitor in the European market following its radical restructuring.

The new-look US phone company might even challenge the might of major telecoms operators BT, France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom.

AT&T has been viewed as being sluggish in its European operations, its management conceded yesterday. A spokeswoman blamed the closed telecoms market on the continent, along with AT&T's unwieldy size and breadth. "It was certainly a combination of things," she said.

AT&T has long complained about the lack of action in continental Europe on market liberalisation, which has stymied efforts by outsiders to win European business.

But the company's integrated operations - ranging from equipment manufacture to communications services to computers - have made it doubly difficult to focus on particular markets.

In the words of an AT&T insider: "People used to wonder what hat we were wearing when we came calling. Were we trying to sell equipment? Network services? Sometimes we were trying to sell equipment, and the next minute competing with those customers for business. Now, the situation will be much clearer."

The confusion has been particularly apparent in the case of AT&T's global alliances, including its joint venture with four European telecoms companies who together operate the European alliance Unisource.

Reaction yesterday from Unisource was blunt: "We think this is very good news. In the past, several business segments of AT&T often caused confusion for customers and users."

The consortium of telecoms operators from Switzerland, Sweden, Spain and the Netherlands, created in 1992, is now awaiting European Commission approval for its joint venture with AT&T, to be dubbed Uniworld. A spokesman for AT&T said the Uniworld venture was already up and running, and that a handful of clients, including Xerox and Philips, had already become customers.

Uniworld offers "virtual" private networks for business customers, targeting 40 large transnational corporations.

The slimmed down AT&T may pose a more coherent threat to BT, who\ conceded yesterday that the AT&T may now be "a bit quicker on their feet". But a spokesman said: "Right now, we are the only game in town."