BT clashes with MPs in broadband inquiry

All heat, little substance

Tempers boiled over yesterday at a parliamentary inquiry into broadband after BT was forced to fend off accusations that it was "arrogant".

The clash between Trade and Industry Select Committee chairman Martin O'Neill and BT boss Ben Verwaayen brought an end to a day that had seen eight different organisations - including AOL UK, Freeserve and Oftel - questioned about their views on broadband Britain.

Flanked by BT's chief broadband officer, Alison Ritchie, and head of regulatory affairs Anne Heal, Verwaayen was asked if BT was a dominant player in the broadband market.

"We're in a strong position," admitted Verwaayen, "not a dominant one".

But you're "still the biggest beast in the jungle", said O'Neill.

As the two men squared up, Verwaayen denied that BT was in a "privileged position in terms of infrastructure".

O'Neill asked what would happen if BT had a lower market share, a question harping back to earlier questioning about the break-up of BT.

Splitting BT's wholesale and retail divisions, argued Verwaayen, would mean the company would not be able to come up with innovative broadband products.

"You're not the only innovator in the land - you've not been given a God-given right to innovate," snapped O'Neill.

He added that many of BT's rivals accuse it of being "an arrogant organisation", a claim strongly denied by Verwaayen.

Yesterday's bad-tempered exchange threatened to overshadow what should have been a constructive insight into the state of broadband in Britain.

Earlier, AOL UK said there was not enough wholesale broadband competition with BT dominant in the provision of ADSL. It argued that consumers would benefit if alternative operators were able to compete with BT.

Freeserve also expressed its concerns about the lack of wholesale choice. In its evidence to the committee it said: "Because there is no diversity in access to the wholesale market, one company [BT] has through its historical inheritance been placed in a position of being able to set the wholesale and retail price."

Instead, Freeserve called for local loop unbundling (LLU) to be given a second chance as a way for rival operators to compete with BT. ®

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