Rivals seek harsher penalties for BT

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CONSUMERS and smaller telephone firms will join forces with regulators this week to press for sweeping new penalties to fight alleged anti-competitive practices by British Telecom.

The Consumers' Association is calling for stringent new fines and compensation, as well as powers of search and seizure for telecoms regulator Oftel to stop BT hindering smaller rivals.

On Thursday, BT will be in the dock as Oftel holds its first ever public hearing in London on changes in its enforcement powers. The meeting ends a consultation launched in July. Oftel is arguing that changes to telecoms licences alone will not be enough.

It has wide support in its main concerns on predatory pricing, cross- subsidies, collusion and "interconnection" - access to BT's network by rivals.

"Oftel needs far greater powers to deal with anti-competitive behaviour. The UK's laws on this are dreadful," said Colin Meek, senior researcher at the Consumers' Association.

London-based Swiftcall alleges that bullying by BT was responsible for advertising auth- orities pulling its pounds 37,000 TV ad last week. Swiftcall, set up in 1993 and with 90,000 mostly private customers, is one of a growing number of firms that leases telephone lines and offers cheaper overseas calls.

Another, First Telecom, is concerned at delays in interconnection with BT's lines: "It takes far too long. It's all to do with anti-competitive behaviour," said director Mark Dache.

q Oftel public hearing: 9.30am-1.30pm, the Great Hall, Kings College, The Strand, London.