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Oftel has announced firm plans to set up a Telecoms Ombudsman in April next year to rule in disputes between consumers and telcos and save them going to court.

Actually, it announced it in September last year, saying he/she would be active by the middle of this year. Which is, er, past already. But, Oftel did re-announce the position in March this year, and now at the end of July it is telling us that it will really go ahead this time - in April 2002.

So while the idea of a person who can settle disputes quickly would appear to be anathema to the watchdog that likes to roll over and have telcos tickle its belly, the process by which we will actually get it is reassuringly slow.

Not wishing to upset the apple cart, Oftel won't make telcos sign up to the ombudsman. No, they will sign up voluntarily. Oftel seems to think the others will be so ashamed if they don't that the system is foolproof.

We suggest that Oftel will have to be putting a pretty big marketing budget behind the post so consumers are aware of it and telecoms companies shamed into signing up. Well there will be some publicity but we hit a brick wall when we ask for what, where and how much.

Have any telcos said that they will definitely sign up to it? "There has been a positive response and broad support for the intiative," a spokeswoman told us. Yes, but have any companies said they will definitely sign up? "We can't comment on that at the moment, it's sensitive." Which, in case you don't know quango-speak, means no.

What will this theoretical ombudsman be able to do? Decide for or against a telco up to the value of £5,000. As long as that company has signed up to him/her. It is a step in the right direction however because currently Oftel's "powers" are seriously curtailed by them being more Yorkshire Terrier than Alsatian. Perhaps if the Ombudsman happens, Oftel could then look at giving itself some power. (Of course by then it will probably be swallowed by super-regulator Ofcom.)

Is this the lamest idea Oftel has ever come up with? No. There are plenty more examples of Oftel being wetter than a salmon's swimming costume. ®

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