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2001: the year when broadband takes off

That's if we're not all strangled first by copper loops

At the Lisbon Summit in March 2000, the heads of Government throughout Europe voted to push for rapid improvements in Europe's IT and ecommerce sector.

They were witnessing the beginnings of a broadband revolution in the US and they didn't want Europe to fall behind.

That meant opening up monopoly telcos to competition. This wasn't just lip service - a token gesture that would be tied up in political red tape for years to come. It was a full-out assault on the incumbent telcos of Europe, to force them to loosen their stranglehold on supplying telco services to homes and businesses.

The issue of local loop unbundling (LLU) was a major step forward. It would allow competitors to enter local telephone exchanges to install their own equipment to offer broadband services directly to consumers over the "last mile of copper wire" or "loop".

Europe invoked a fast-track process that has seen legislation drawn up and passed within nine months. By political standards, that's as fast as an ADSL service compared to a clunky old 56K modem.

The result, is that by December 31 2000, LLU has to be "made available" in all Member States in Europe.

BT's conscience is clear

In the UK, BT says it's there. A day before its CEO went before a hostile committee of MPs in December, the UK's incumbent telco issued a statement bragging that it had met every single one of the deadlines set by telecoms regulator Oftel for local loop unbundling. It also said it expects to be compliant with the EU regulation.

BT says it will hand over co-location spaces for trial ahead of the original schedule. It says the first exchanges have already been delivered early to other operators for them to install their equipment.

It claims that service provision (line transfer), and maintenance and fault handling are six months ahead of plan.

And it says surveys of "desirable" exchanges - those predominantly serving major urban areas - have been carried out ahead of customer requirements. What's more, 600 exchange areas (190 where operators have equipment in BT exchanges and 410 where operators have equipment in adjacent buildings) will become available between January and June 2001.

From this assessment, it seems BT has met all its targets - and trumped its critics in the process.

Asked whether BT's assessment of the state of LLU in the UK was accurate, a senior Oftel spokesperson said that it was - broadly speaking. There may be some issues of detail that are in dispute, he said, but nothing that leaves BT open to any severe attack.

Critics argue that if BT was able to hit what it describes as a "challenging timetable" over LLU, then Oftel wasn't pushing hard enough.

Perhaps that's one of the reasons why Oftel boss, David Edmonds, received a roasting at the hands of MPs in October, and BT CEO, Sir Peter Bonfield, walked away with a warm glow of appreciation when he faced the same group of MPs two months later.

Despite Sir Peter's escape at the hands of the trade and industry select committee, the process of LLU has not been trouble-free.

Telco's spitting feathers at BT's tactics

The allocation of space in exchanges descended into near farce when it was revealed that disputes between telcos would be solved by the roll of a dice. This proposal has since been dropped.

In a joint submission to the trade and industry select committee looking into the issue of broadband, Atlantic Telecom, Easynet, Iomart, Oncue Telecommunications and Versapoint listed a catalogue of complaints they had about the whole LLU process.

"We do not have transparent and non-discriminatory access," said the telcos, "and we do not yet have reasonable terms and conditions. Indeed, we do not even have access."

Compared to France, Germany and Holland, the UK was simply not up to speed, it noted.

"A direct UK comparison based on the current allocation to operators of space at BT's local exchanges would show that it would take the operators over 30 years to achieve parity with BT's own roll out," it concluded.

There was also accusations that BT had "blacklisted" key exchanges preventing rival telcos access to these sites. This has always been denied by BT.

According to Atlantic Telecom et al, LLU has been a "long, gruelling and resource-intensive process." And they're not alone.

If you can't stand the heat...
Global Crossing, Worldcom and KPNQwest were early casualties in the process deciding to dip out of the LLU auction citing slow progress and the impotence of Oftel as the reason behind their decision. In December cableco, Telewest, announced it had canned its £1 billion investment programme in LLU insisting it would focus on its own network and the promotion of broadband cable modems.

NTL, another cableco and telco, is maintaining an open mind, prepared to dip its toe into the water to see if it's a worthwhile venture. It too, though, is promoting its own cable modem network and expects great things in 2001.

Of course, with all these things, we'll only know if LLU is a success when it eventually happens and services are rolled out to consumers. The real test will come next year when rival telcos begin installing their kit in BT's exchanges and, in turn, broadband services to customers.

Only then will we find whether telcos have succeeded in their fight for their share of the copper loop - or become ensnared in a wire noose. ®

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