Cable directive due next week

MATHEW HORSMAN

Adoption of the European Commission's cable directive, aimed at liberalising telecommunications markets in Europe, has been delayed by a week for "purely technical reasons," according to sources in Brussels. It is now lodged with the translation service and will not be officially adopted until after the weekend, the sources said.

The subject of an intense lobbying campaign from BT, the directive is aimed at ensuring competition in what the Commission calls non-reserved telecoms services - including home shopping, multimedia, closed business networks and data transmission. It does not cover voice telephony, which is due to be completely liberalised by 1 January 1998.

BT had hoped that the Commission would adopt an amendment - as proposed by the European Parliament - that would have given telecoms operators the right to broadcast over their phone networks. But the Commission declined to accept the parliamentary amendment, to BT's regret. The company said yesterday it would have preferred to see the Commission supporting the view expressed by the European Parliament.

Currently, BT is forbidden to use its network to broadcast audio-visual services in the UK until at least 2002, when the prohibition is to be reviewed. Last week, BT and the Labour Party unveiled an agreement under which the ban would be lifted in exchange for BT cabling every school, hospital, university and local authority in the country.

The directive is scheduled to go into effect in 1996, bringing early competition to markets where the main telecoms operator has a monopoly or dominant position. The EC is keen to encourage competitors such as cable companies and utilities to develop alternative telecoms infrastructures in advance of full liberalisation in 1998.

The freedom to provide non-reserved services would also extend to telecom companies from other EC countries.

At home, BT already faces direct competition in voice telephony from the cable industry and from other service providers such as Mercury. It argues that the rest of Europe needs to move more quickly toward building a liberalised market.

The Commission has taken a hard line with Continental telecoms operators, insisting for example on concessions from Deutsche Telekom and France Telecom before approving their controversial joint venture. But BT has been frustrated with the slow pace of reform.

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