Oftel has carried the day in its latest battle with BT, mandating that the telco must allow competing operators to install their own high bandwidth technology onto local telephone circuits.
There are several key points in the long-awaited decision to enforce the second of five options from its Access To Bandwidth consultation paper published in 1998, rather than the watered down fourth option favoured by BT.
The upshot is that all telecom operators with the right to connect to BT's network will be able to upgrade BT's lines with their own kit. There will be no restrictions on the types of services that operators will offer, subject to technical compatibility.
Oftel will set the price for use of the local loop based on costs incurred by BT plus a markup. To reinforce arrangements for access rights, a new condition will be inserted in BT's licence to cover the types of services and terms and conditions under which they will be made available from BT.
As BT upgrades its own lines with new technologies such as copper-based ADSL, it must provide wholesale access to other telecoms operators on exactly the same terms it offers to its own in-house service providers.
BT conducted trials of ADSL technology, which allows data transfer over copper phone lines at 16 times the speed of ISDN or 40 times that of a standard modem, more than four years ago. It announced only recently plans to equip 400 local exchanges with the technology by March 2000.
The timetable for unbundling should see operators leasing BT's local telephone line loop to provide a range of high-speed communications services direct to customers by July 2001 at the very latest, preferably earlier, said Oftel.
The licence changes and consequent pricing of new services are still under negotiation. David Edmonds, Oftel's director general of telecommunications, acknowledged that the timetable is a challenge.
"It is challenging because there are a number of significant issues that the industry must tackle, including location of other operators' equipment in BT's exchanges, and the upgrading of BT's and other operators' computer systems to support automated handling of operators' orders for local loops," he said.
Edmonds dismissed suggestions that BT has dragged its feet on unbundling and the implementation of high bandwidth technologies that facilitate unmetered Internet access rather than the costly per minute systems implemented at present.
He said that BT has assured Oftel that it will cooperate fully with the rest of the industry to meet the timetable, and will work with Oftel on the new licence condition and pricing.
Edmonds said that the expected ballpark figure for ADSL would be £100 to £115 per line per year to the operators. The cost to consumers is still undecided, but Edmonds said that £300 would be at the low end of the cost spectrum.
"The work has already begun...and early solutions to the problem could make it possible for the start date to be brought forward from July 2001, which Oftel would welcome," said Edmonds.
He believes that BT will not find collocation of competitor's equipment a thorny issue since it had a satisfactory arrangement with Mercury Communications. He emphasised that Oftel expects BT to keep its word on the implementation and timetable.
However, Oftel's relationship with BT remains an uneasy one. Speaking at the TMA in Brighton earlier today, BT chairman Sir Iain Vallance lambasted Oftel's stance on broadband and local call charges, blaming the regulator for forcing up call charges.
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