MPs warn of Broadband rollout farce

The authoritative House of Commons Trade and Industry select committee yesterday described the ongoing saga of local loop...

The authoritative House of Commons Trade and Industry select committee yesterday described the ongoing saga of local loop unbundling as a "sorry tale" that was "in danger of becoming farcical".

None of the protagonists, from BT, the Government, the regulator Oftel, through to the operators came out unscathed in the committee's damning 23-page report.

The report argues that the unbundling of BT's local loop to facilitate competition in broadband access "is a crucial pre-condition for the growth of e-commerce". It asserts: "The vision of Internet villages and widespread home teleworking will become a reality only when such services are readily available. "

But, as the select committee outlined, the Government's auction of the 14 regional licences for Broadband Fixed Wireless Access spectrum "was not successful", as it left seven regions without any licences sold. This was "unfortunate", in the committee's view.

The report's biggest criticism, however, is reserved for the failure to tackle local loop unbundling. The committee condemned the lack of agreement between different operators that ended with the initial "Bow Wave" allocations to BT's rival operators being scrapped.

"The situation is in danger of becoming farcical," the report states. "The production of one Bow Wave list in November 2000 was closely followed by another in December 2000. This was followed by the 18 January announcement that the Bow Wave process has in effect been abandoned. This sorry tale does not suggest a high level of administrative competence among those involved".

BT comes in for particularly heavy criticism for dragging its feet over unbundling. The committee quotes Oftel's Director General David Edmonds who gave evidence regarding BT's conduct during the summer of last year.

"BT were deliberately holding back information, when BT were not progressing the roll out of local loop unbundling as fast as we would have wished," he claimed, describing "almost bitter conversations" with BT that amounted to "trench warfare".

In a damning phrase the e-commerce minister Patricia Hewitt spoke of "a near breakdown" in relationship between BT and the operators.

Major shortcomings by Oftel are also highlighted in the report. It asserts that the watchdog "should have intervened earlier" in the dispute between BT and the operators, and should have "made a better fist of the implementation once engaged in the process".

The report even casts doubt on the competence of key Oftel staff: "Some senior officers had not even visited an exchange. The episode has shown up some weaknesses in Oftel's grasp of the technical issues involved."

The report concludes with a curse on all their houses: "The blame for the delays and problems incurred to date must lie at the door of all participants".

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