BT, its users and rival operators today cautiously welcomed Oftel's decision to force the UK's largest telecom operator to open its local phone lines and facilities to competitors by July 2001.
But within hours of Oftel publishing its long awaited Access To Bandwidth consultation document this morning, there was widespread concern about the mammoth task ahead and the relatively short time in which to implement it.
Barclay Knapp, chief executive of NTL, said the task of unbundling BT's local networks would be "devilishly impossible", citing the problems experienced in the US when local networks were unbundled there some time ago.
Oftel today selected its preferred option for unbundling - number two of five candidates - that gives telecom operators the right to upgrade BT's local lines with their own kit located at BT's facilities. BT had favoured Option 4 where it would have provided a broadband line between customers and a service provider, giving it control of the equipment at its sites.
In its response to Oftel's consultation on broadband earlier this year, BT described Option 2 as "neither necessary nor desirable - it will hinder progress towards achieving broadband Britain."
Bill Cockburn, group managing director of BT in the UK, reacted to the decision by saying it had come as no surprise and that BT would be "working hard to meet the demanding deadline."
Michael Butler, MCI Worldcom's UK managing director, said it would also work hard to meet the deadline and welcomed the possibility that it might be brought forward. "With commitment and hard work from all parties we can achieve this before July 2001. Now is the time to translate policy into product," he said.
But there was concern among users and from BT that allowing operators to set up services wherever they choose might result in them targeting only lucrative areas, such as central London.
Martyn Hart, chairman of the Telecom Managers Association, welcomed the announcement but expressed concern about the potential for new operators to "cherry pick" the best locations, thereby ignoring the less lucrative areas.
Users at TMA's conference in Brighton today backed plans for a TMA-led scheme to promote broadband access for all areas. BT's initial broadband rollout only targets major cities.
BT also expressed similar concerns. "We still have some reservations about the Option 2 approach. It would be unfortunate if it was to encourage cherry picking in broadband deployment," said Cockburn.
BT also called for Oftel to put pressure on cable companies to unbundle their local networks, which it claims pass half the homes in the UK. "By ignoring the cable companies, Oftel has only done half the job," said Cockburn.
David Edmonds, director general of Oftel, said he didn't expect the issue of collocating other operators' equipment on BT's premises would prove difficult, citing BT's existing satisfactory arrangement with Mercury Communications. He emphasised that Oftel expects BT to keep its word on the implementation and timetable.
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