David Edmonds, Oftel's director general, ruled that BT will not have to allow competitive access to its local loop lines into consumers' homes until July 2000. BT plans to launch its own high-speed digital subscriber line Internet service from April, with a national roll-out to cover more than two-thirds of Britain by the end of 2001.
By April, Oftel hopes to have negotiated amendments to BT's licence. That provision will eventually force the telecoms giant to make its local lines available to competing telecoms carriers and other firms, such as Microsoft, who want to market advanced Internet services.
"We think the ruling is important, but it should happen quicker," said Charles McGregor, chief executive of Fibrenet Group, an alternative telecoms service provider specialising in offering high-speed Net access.
MCI WorldCom, the world's biggest telecoms group by market value, also welcomed Oftel's decision, but stressed that competitive services could commence more quickly. "With commitment and hard work from all parties we can achieve this before July 2001," said Michael Butler, managing director of MCI WorldCom UK.
Bill Cockburn, managing director of BT UK, cautiously welcomed Oftel's plan. "What is proposed is far reaching," he said. "It's something that has to be worked through in detail."
One question mark is price. BT has proposed to offer digital subscriber lines on a wholesale basis to service providers, which could include AOL and Freeserve, from about pounds 50 per month for 500 kilobit service to pounds 150 for 2 megabit service. But BT said yesterday that it would unveil new price proposals shortly.