E-commerce will only thrive when we break up BT

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The Independent Online

A scrap between telecoms firms is not normally something that commands the attention. However, the latest row between British Telecom and some of its younger, nimbler rivals, the likes of Colt Telecoms, Energis and Kingston Communications, is worthy of closer examination.

A scrap between telecoms firms is not normally something that commands the attention. However, the latest row between British Telecom and some of its younger, nimbler rivals, the likes of Colt Telecoms, Energis and Kingston Communications, is worthy of closer examination.

So important is it, indeed, that it is even worth putting up with the irritating jargon that seems routinely to fog discussion of telecoms. For what is being debated will one day be as vital, by crude analogy, as access to the road and the rail network is now to the transport of freight and people, and to the economy as a whole. And it certainly deserves more than the complacent response offered up by the e-minister, Patricia Hewitt, yesterday.

Those in the industry call it "local loop unbundling for ADSL" (asymmetrical digital subscriber line interconnections). To most of us, it is about popular, fast, reliable access to the internet for everything from e-commerce to education.

The weakest, ie, slowest, link on the internet is the copper cabling that runs from homes and businesses to the nearest (BT-owned) exchange - the so-called "local loop". There are ingenious ways of speeding this up - ADSL, for example. In principle, the more of us who have such access, the more chance there is of our exploiting the potential of the e-commerce revolution. In other words, this matters to everyone.

The principal problem and reason why we have been falling behind our European neighbours has been BT's slowness in allowing its rivals access to local exchanges so that they can compete to offer these services. And now BT has moved with uncharacteristic alacrity to launch its own fast-access ADSL services, months before competitors can get anywhere near the market; hence their complaint to Oftel.

There may be a solution, however, that squares the interests of consumers, business, the Government and even BT's shareholders, who have watched their company squander its advantages with depressing abandon. It is to split BT into its component parts. In the case of local and national cabling, there could be a new network utility, open to all those who wanted to provide telecoms services. The firm would be regulated but might make acceptable profits, depending on the kinds of deals it could make.

It is something that BT just might, in time, volunteer to do. But, if she wants the e-commerce reality to live up to her rhetoric, it is something that the e-minister should begin to push for - now.

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