BT wants to delay the introduction of a more competitive phone system in the UK, saying it is too busy working on Year 2000 compliance.
But users said the delay of carrier pre-selection (CPS) - which lets customers pre-select an alternative carrier without dialling special prefixes - could have been prevented.
The European Commission has set 1 January, 2000, as the day telecomms operators in Europe must introduce CPS. Telecomms operators in several European countries have said they will be ready for the deadline.
However, telecomms watchdog Oftel said last week BT had sought a deferment from the Commission for the introduction of CPS and that the system is now unlikely to be available in the UK until late 2000.
"It is Oftel's view that it will not be possible to offer CPS functionality throughout the UK by 1 January, 2000, and thus the UK will not be able to meet its present obligations under the numbering directive," Oftel said in a detailed statement on CPS.
"Substantial software upgrades are required to introduce CPS into BT's switches and the work has to be meshed in with other software changes currently underway to make the network Millennium compliant. The new CPS links to other operators will then have to be rigorously tested," Oftel said.
But users say the UK lost time preparing for CPS because Oftel and the Department of Trade and Industry were initially opposed to the system and only had a change of heart in December 1997.
"We lost some preparation time," said Bill Mieran, executive chairman of the Telecommunications Users Association. "While the rest of Europe were getting on with it, the attitude here was 'we don't need it, we don't want it'," he said.
"Perhaps with a bit more pressure it could have been delivered on time," said Mieran.
CPS will enable telephone customers to select which operators carry their calls, even though the copper wire going into their house is usually provided by BT. Different operators could be used for local, long distance, international and calls to mobiles.
"The convenience of carrier pre-selection will encourage customers to make more use of the savings offered by the wide variety of phone companies in the market," said David Edmonds, director general of Oftel in a statement.
A decision from the European Commission on whether it accepts BT's deferment request is expected in early spring, according to Oftel.
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