Oftel clears BT of dirty tricks

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BT was largely exonerated yesterday from allegations that it had improperly canvassed ex-directory cable customers, in a report issued by the telecoms watchdog Oftel.

But the regulator called on the company to improve its standards in the future, saying that any campaign to win back customers "should meet the highest standards of fairness and propriety". A spokesman from BT said: "We're clearly delighted that Oftel has vindicated BT. There was no dirty- tricks campaign. Oftel has confirmed that it was an honest mistake made through a computer error."

The Cable Communications Association was last night considering whether to take additional action. Its chief executive, Bob Frost, said that the main issue - whether ex-directory cable customers had been addressed by name in BT's "win back" campaign - had not been resolved.

In a statement accompanying the report, Oftel director-general Don Cruickshank said he accepted BT's explanation relating to the computer glitch. BT claimed that in a list of phone numbers generated by an outside supplier, a coding error had led to some digits being changed. Of these, some were ex-directory accounts.

Mr Cruickshank said that the claim of some customers to have been marketed by their own names lay with a lack of adequate scripting, training and monitoring, which had given cable customers an incorrect impression. He also warned that "immediate enforcement" would follow any recurrence of the episode. BT last night said it had reviewed its procedures "to ensure that everyone maintains the proper standards".

The cable industry gave a muted response to the Oftel report. Telewest Communications, the industry leader, said: "Whether by accident or intent, we believe BT's actions were anti-competitive and unneccesary."A spokesman added: "BT should now apologise to the customers concerned and to the cable companies affected."

Bell Cablemedia, some of whose customers had also been contacted by BT marketers in recent months, said: "We look forward to BT's confirmation ... of the new procedures it now intends to set up in order to avoid a repeat of such a situation." BCM said the episode confirmed that Oftel was right to request additional powers to enforce open competition in the telecoms industry.

BT's board meets today to discuss whether to accept Oftel's plans to take on the new powers of enforcement. The company is fighting the proposals, arguing that they should include a formal right of appeal.