BT and Oftel fight back

But newspaper defences leave us unswayed and unimpressed

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Both BT and Oftel have hit back at last week's avalanche of critical stories and features. Both companies caught heavy flak, ultimately being blamed for Britain's failure to keep up with the rest of the world in the Internet revolution.

BT's defender, in the form of Robin Pauley (director, group communications) has responded to a letter in the Financial Times and to David Hewson's terrific rant in The Sunday Times, making much the same points. And head of Oftel, David Edmonds, has popped up in The Guardian to defend accusations put against him.

First, though, BT's defence. It's pretty poor to be honest. Robin's all het up that BT is being called a monopolist. It's simply not true, he says. "The fact is that there are more than 200 licensed alternative telecommunications providers operating in the UK covering every sector of the market," he says in the FT. It's hard to tell whether your average reader will know how disingenuous this statement is. But the point had already been made by Hewson and fortunately replied to by Pauley.

"It is also untrue to say that 'Every domestic provider of call services' touches BT at some point, pays a poll tax for every second it is connected and quietly passes that onto your bill.' Providers often don't need to use BT. Where does an NTL caller connecting to, say, an Energis-hosted ISP have to deal with BT at all?," he said. Oh come on, Robin, is that the best you can do? This is like saying you don't have to get a plane to get to San Francisco from London. You could, for example, get a boat and then a train, or a Greyhound bus.

Internet access charges? Out comes that OECD survey for the fiftieth time: Britain is the second-cheapest country for off-peak Internet access, and cheaper than average for peak access. As we pointed out when this report first arrived, the stats are completely skewed. The reason why the UK looks cheaper is because of subscription-free ISPs like Freeserve (incidentally, an indication of the innovation and competition backed up behind BT), which other countries tend not to have. When you look at the actual call charges - BT's territory - we are paying through the nose - three times more than the US for example.

And so to the contentious issue of local loop unbundling. This is where BT is being deliberately obstructive, holding Britain back in the meantime. Mr Pauley is keen to point out that everyone else is just as bad - the kind of argument that kids and politicians are very keen on. There's not just one local loop: NTL has one, Telewest has one - they're not being made to open them. Oh, for God's sake. If NTL and Telewest had anywhere near the size of infrastructure as BT, we wouldn't be in this mess. The final sentence is also indicative of what everyone has been complaining of: "BT has met every deadline for which it is accountable in the UK's local-loop unbundling process."

Which brings us neatly to David Edmonds' interview. David has been personally blamed for not being strong enough with BT and letting it run amok. The interview (we tried to get him but, unsurprisingly, The Reg's request was refused) gives a very valuable insight in Edmonds' mind and as such, we'll put the knives away and try to understand this man.

Aside from the fact that Dave is upset at personal attacks, which are sadly inevitable due to Oftel's make-up - an all-powerful and autonomous leader - he portrays himself as a very different man to what is generally perceived.

The local loop unbundling, for which he has received most criticism, wouldn't even have happened without him, he claimed. Other European countries already had legislation in place that let them enforce unbundling, he said. It is down to him that he's managed to get it agreed with BT. His relationship with BT is "businesslike" and discussions with it have been "as tough as any he has had".

As for the official complaints he has received from BT competitors - even they wouldn't have happened without him. It was down to David that there are any competitors. He paints such complaints as commercial arm-bending and himself as strong enough to resist them, despite the negative effect they may have on his image. "I will be judged by my results," he said.

And, do you know what? We don't blame Edmonds for holding this opinion. He's been a civil servant nearly all his life - a position that encompasses getting the most out of what is already there. To David, the fact that he has achieved these goals against heavy opposition from BT is a sign that he's a tough cookie. He is genuinely perplexed that people don't think he has done enough. How much else could he have done through negotiation?

But this is our point. Whether David likes it or not what he has achieved by negotiation is not enough. With the unexpected Internet boom, negotiation simply wasn't and isn't the best way forward. It demanded a dictatorial approach - BT had to be made to buckle under. As a watchdog, David Edmonds has done his job. But the job is no much more than that and he wasn't able to recognise the fact. What we needed was not another civil servant keeping tabs on a monopoly but instead a forward-looking, commercially aware director who would lobby other companies and government behind him to force change.

And it is still very possible. The government will pass legislation if it has to, due to the weight of the Internet message it has been sending out. The City recognises the enormous benefit of a heavily wired Britain and the media has come to love the Web. If he were to lay down the law, he'd find a lot of support and perhaps then we would see some movement above and beyond what can be expected.

Sometimes, David, your best just isn't good enough. ®

Related Stories

Sunday Times savages BT
UK Net access as cheap as US
Oftel to investigate BT over LLU
UK Govt loses faith in Oftel
Blind leading the dumb: the local loop fiasco

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