Cable firms turn to Oftel over BT 'dirty tricks' campaign

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The Independent Online
Angry UK cable operators have accused BT of running a "dirty tricks" campaign to win back telephone customers, and have called on Oftel, the telecoms regulator, to intervene.

In the most serious allegations ever made against the dominant operator, cable companies charge that BT marketing staff have rung hundreds of ex- directory cable customers in Teeside, Yorkshire, Birmingham and London, addressing them by name, and asking them to consider switching back to BT. If true, the campaign would contravene BT's own guidelines, its licence conditions, and laws governing data protection and privacy.

Sources at leading cable companies also accused BT of giving out incorrect information about rivals, over the telephone and in printed material. Hundreds of written statements from disgruntled cable customers have been forwarded to Oftel.

A spokesman for Oftel said yesterday that "we have received complaints, and have asked BT to initiate a high-level probe, the results of which we expect imminently. BT is in no doubt about how seriously we take these charges."

A BT spokesman said: "We take the charges seriously. But I must stress that so far, our investigations show we have done nothing wrong. We will go back to the [Cable Communications Association] with a full report of our review early next week."

Graham MacPhee, marketing director at Comcast, a leading operator, said the information so far gathered by the operators "looks quite damaging, and if it is true, it is appalling behaviour by BT".

Bob Frost, director of the CCA, this week called Peter Bonfield, head of BT, directly about the issue. "We are of course very concerned," Mr Frost said, "and if the matters prove to be substantiated, our members will have to seriously consider their position."

BT has a record of all ex-directory numbers in the UK, principally to cover emergency 999 calls. It is enjoined from using the numbers for marketing purposes under its licence with Oftel. BT has been losing customers to cable operators at the rate of at least 50,000 a month, and the competition has been particularly fierce in recent weeks, following price cuts by large cable companies.

In some areas, cable has pushed penetration rates as high as 60 per cent, in a direct threat to BT's basic business.

The allegation of dirty tricks arose when ex-directory customers in several franchises contacted their local operators to complain about being called at home by tele-marketers.

Even ex-directory customers, about 25 per cent of numbers nationally, - cannot block out all marketing calls, as many firms use automatic random dialling. Cable customers said, however, that BT staff addressed them by name.

The explosive issue has emerged at a crucial time for BT, which is discussing changes to its licence with Oftel. Don Cruickshank, Oftel's director-general, is pushing for a general "anti-competitive" clause which BT has so far been resisting.

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