Blind leading the dumb: the local loop fiasco

Shakespearian farce or Greek tragedy? Might just as well go home

It's hard to know where to begin. Oftel is as effective as a monopode in the Premier league. In fact it is a byword for not only not doing your job but also failing to recognise what your job entails. Let's get that out the way first.

This is about the local loop, its unbundling and the process' total mishandling from start to finish. The local loop is basically what gives BT its continuing monopoly in the UK. BT will do anything to hold onto it and frequently does. But, after huge, consistent and significant pressure put on flawed watchdog Oftel, it was decided that the loops should be opened up to competitors.

Then came all the arguments about when BT should do it. Oftel, even when criticised by the European Union itself, continued to believe its best friend's lies and said that it just wasn't possible until July 2001. Which, handily, is just when BT will have an alternative high-capacity network in place.

Oftel tried to abate some strong critics by saying it would obviously unbundle some loops before then. More pressure and finally the mechanism to open the loops is revealed: and absolutely no one, including Oftel itself, knows how the hell it works. If this isn't Kafkaesque we don't know what is.

As we reported on Thursday (and was subsequently reported by the BBC the day after (a funny pattern that's emerged this year)), the decision as to who gets in the first 360 exchanges will be made by the Single Transferable Vote system. What's that you ask? Well, we've got some form of explanation which we'll all have to made do with until the complaints start pouring in. We'll put it further down.

The system has already caused one bidder to pull out in disgust (RSL - the fourth largest international carrier in the UK - a US Nasdaq company, which has said Oftel is suffocating UK Internet growth), and looks like it will ruin other companies' carefully laid plans. But not only that, the list of the first 360 exchanges to be opened have been chosen because "they are the exchanges where we are confident all the bidders will be able to get into the exchange" (Oftel).

What this means in reality is that they will be the more remote exchanges in the UK. Oftel won't confirm this yet - an announcement is coming very soon apparently. The implication is that the most important exchanges - London, Birmingham, Manchester etc - won't be opened up until the end of the July deadline.

The other question is: why isn't there enough room in exchanges for a range of operators? Well, for one, because BT has made no effort whatsoever to make any room, and secondly, because Oftel has done bugger all about it. We asked Oftel who was going to pay for exchange expansion and it didn't have a clue - it seems likely that it hadn't even thought about it. What on earth is going on? In any other industry, this would be gross professional misconduct.

So what do we have? Nothing. Nothing at all - apart from the usual fat, lazy incumbent supplier and the sleeping, ineffectual and criminally inept watchdog. We've spent so long banging our head against the wall that we feel a little dizzy and need to have a sit down.

That weak explanation of the single transferable vote

Okay, this is the best we've got so far. All those operators that wish to bid for entry into local loops will tell third party Electoral Reform Services (ERS) which loops it wants to be in and the order in which they most want them i.e. if a company wants its equipment in 400 exchanges but most wants to be in the main Manchester exchange it will list Manchester main as number one, Manchester sub as number two etc etc.

ERS will then collate all this information from different operators together and send it to Oftel anonymously i.e. Oftel will receive lists of Company A, Company B etc. Oftel will then decide who gets what. In the event of a complete tie (christ knows what that entails), who wins will be decided by - get this - the roll of a die.

Now it doesn't take a genius to see an entire patchwork of holes in this insane system. It is also another great example of how Oftel offloads all the hard work onto companies rather than bother to work it out by itself. It is a flawed, lazy, sixth-form approach to a very important issue and we're depressed that we're not surprised. It simply won't work and it is us, the consumers, that will ultimately suffer. Can no one rid us of this troublesome watchdog? ®

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