Ousted C&W chief to head Grid's telecom project

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The Independent Online
GORDON OWEN, who was ousted last year as group managing director of Cable & Wireless, is to head an ambitious drive by the National Grid Company to set up a rival public telecommunications network to BT and Mercury.

Mr Owen, regarded as the chief architect of C&W's subsidiary, Mercury Communications, will be joined by David Dey, a former director of BT and Plessey.

The National Grid Company, which is owned by the 12 regional electricity companies, has established a subsidiary called Telecom Electric. The company applied for a public telecommunications operator's licence in May and hopes to have secured a go-ahead from the Department of Trade and Industry by the end of the year.

Mr Owen has been appointed special adviser and Mr Dey project leader, pending the outcome of a pilot project. They will take on the roles of chairman and chief executive respectively once the scheme takes off. Telecom Electric will base its network on the system of electricity pylons to offer long-distance communications links.

The National Grid Company has 5,000 kilometres of overhead power lines linked into local electricity networks. Telecom Electric will exploit this, wrapping fibre optic cable around the earth cables that run parallel to the power lines. The technology is already being tested in pilot schemes in the West Midlands.

The company could link into local telephone networks run by radio-telephone or cable television companies. Some of the regional electricity companies are also expected to apply to run their own local telephone services, which could interface with the NGC's nationwide trunk network. But the grid company said that its telecommunications plans will be developed independently of any aspirations of the regional companies.

Others interested in offering long-distance telecommunications services include British Rail, British Waterways and US Sprint. Around 35 companies had applied to the DTI for telecommunications licences by the end of August, though some will target niche areas rather than offer broader telephony and data services.

Telecom Electric is regarded as a serious contender in the marketplace by the industry watchdog, Oftel. Mr Owen's appointment is seen in the industry as an important step forward in the telecommunications plan. Analysts said that he lends instant credibility to the company's ambitions although they wait to see the amount of investment involved.