Oftel chief 'tempted to send BT executives to prison'

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The Independent Online

The telecoms regulator, David Edmunds, launched a scathing attack on British Telecom yesterday, saying it had engaged in "trench warfare" in a bid to slow down the opening of its local loop to competitors.

The telecoms regulator, David Edmunds, launched a scathing attack on British Telecom yesterday, saying it had engaged in "trench warfare" in a bid to slow down the opening of its local loop to competitors.

Giving evidence before a Commons select committee, the head of Oftel told MPs that BT had deliberately dragged its feet and behaved in an unacceptable manner to hinder rivals' ability to start offering high-speed internet services.

At one point Mr Edmunds, who has been accused of being too lenient on BT, half-joked: "Sometimes it's tempting to send BT executives to prison".

Energis, one of BT's competitors, joined in the attack, calling for the company to be broken up completely and accusing it of abusing its monopoly position. Announcing interim results, Mike Grabiner, chief executive of Energis, said it would "be lucky" if it had its equipment in one BT local exchange by January, the original deadline for local loop unbundling.

Mr Edmunds rejected suggestions from MPs on the Trade and Industry Select Committee that he could have done more to force BT to open up its local exchanges more quickly. He said Oftel had had some "almost bitter" conversations with BT over the summer. The regulator said he detected a split between BT's top management and managers on the ground who were "dragging their feet" over unbundling the local loop, adding: "That has been unsatisfactory, unacceptable behaviour."

But the head of Oftel accepted that most of the 600 BT exchanges that were earmarked for opening first to rivals were not the ones to which they were keenest on gaining access. Oftel would announce shortly, possibly this week, a methodology for bringing more popular sites into the process, he added.

Mr Edmunds insisted that under his leadership Oftel had been "proactive", and that on a number of occasions had "got stuck in very heavily" when it believed that BT was not making the progress it expected. He also disclosed that Oftel had sent BT a number of statutory letters demanding information such as the location of exchanges. "It beggars belief that BT did not have accurate post codes for their exchanges," he told MPs.

Mr Grabiner said Energis wanted to see the BT network separated from BT's other operations arguing it would not be a very big step from the restructuring BT announced last week. The attack on BT came as Energis reported a move into an operating profit of £9.5m for the first half, from a loss of £1.2m previously.

Commenting on local loop unbundling, Mr Grabiner said: "I'm not happy at all with what BT is doing. It has used its dominance to get early mover advantage into the retail market. BT has abused its position. It's treating its own retail operation on a preferential basis ... unbundling is happening too slowly. They are delaying it."

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