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Oftel head flambéed by angry MPs

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Sparks were flying at the Houses of Parliament yesterday. Head of Oftel David Edmonds faced the trade and industry select committee and they were not in good temper.

Of course prime billing was given to Oftel's inability to get BT off its arse, but the committee also pilled in with questions on mobile phone tariffs and public phone boxes. Edmonds knew he had a hard time coming but blimey. We're just annoyed we didn't head down there to see him squirm.

The occasion provided some of the best quotes that have been used in relation to the telecoms industry. Edmonds was accused of being impotent, complacent, overly lenient and hoodwinked. Someone was paying attention then.

Oftel, it was exclaimed, had fundamentally failed to do its job as regulator of the telecoms market. It could have done more to force BT to open local loops, it was "taken for a ride", it has failed to make mobile phone tariffs simple, it has not managed to build competition for leased lines, it didn't do enough to prevent public phone boxes from being closed down - the list goes on and on.

Edmonds was fighting for his reputation and fired back with equally strong words. It has been "trench warfare" with BT over the summer he said. When negotiating with BT "you need to hit it with a club five times and on the sixth they come up with what you want". He also half-joked that at times he wished he could have put BT chief Peter Bonfield in jail. BT has apparently withheld information for months at a time - the most interesting example being that it didn't know the postcodes of its own exchanges. No one said it was going to be easy, Dave.

This is great and we have a new-found respect for the trade committee (Martin O'Neill, we salute you). Perhaps now we can get something done. Chief exec of Energis Mike Grabiner stuck his oar in (unusual :-) ) and suggested the core phone network of Britain was floated off as a separate company. Now that's what we call an idea. ®

The juiciest quotes

"You need to hit BT with a club five times and on the sixth they come up with what you want. We have had trench warfare all this summer," David Edmonds, head of Oftel.

"People are getting ripped off week after week signing up to mobile phone tariffs they don't understand. If you've got the powers [to regulate them] why don't you damn well use them?" Martin O'Neill, chairman of trade and industry committee.

"Frankly, BT was taking you for a ride," Martin O'Neill.

"Your complacency is quite appalling. One can't blame BT if you can't police them," Martin O'Neill.

"If you were a proactive regulator, you would have been pressing Parliament for statutory powers [to break BT's local loop monopoly]," John Butterfill MP.

"People are genuinely concerned about the slowness with which BT is implementing the changes and the apparent impotence of your organisation to speed them up," Martin O'Neill.

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