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Thursday, 8 February, 2001, 15:18 GMT
BT's broadband 'disgrace'
high speed row
AOL, Freeserve and BT could take a fast track to court
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

BT is facing legal action from rival firms over the rollout of high-speed net connections across the UK.

Freeserve and AOL are threatening to take BT to court claiming it is unfairly discriminating against competitors by connecting up far fewer of their customers than its own.

The pair branded BT a "national disgrace" over the sluggish pace of the rollout and for the way the telecoms giant allocates installation engineers to rivals.

Oftel, the telecoms watchdog, is already investigating the complaints and said it would act quickly if BT was found to be breaking competition laws.

We are seriously considering legal action

Clare Gilbert chief counsel AOL Europe
Many keen net surfers are waiting for the day that they can swap their modem for a high-speed Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) connection that roars along the information superhighway at speeds of up to 512 kilobits per second. The fastest modems can only manage 56 kilobits per second.

Currently BT is the only company offering a DSL service to consumers and it does so via a division called BT Ignite. Over 100 net service providers, including BT's own fast net division called Openworld, have signed up to resell this service to consumers.

Interview fuss

Anyone signing up for this service via any of the resellers will have it installed by a BT engineer.

Under the terms of its licence, BT is supposed to treat its own divisions the same way as any other customer.

But now AOL and Freeserve are threatening to take BT to court saying it has openly admitted that it is favouring Openworld and connecting up far more of its own customers than those of its rivals.

The row has blown up because of comments made by BT Openworld boss Andy Green. During a Reuters interview, Mr Green said it was connecting up to 2000 DSL customers a week to its service.

Currently AOL and Freeserve have been allocated only 100 installation slots per week each by BT Ignite. AOL and Freeserve are claiming that this shows a clear bias by BT in favour of its own division, especially since AOL and Freeserve have far more net customers clamouring for DSL.

"We will take any action that is needed to resolve this situation and are seriously considering legal action," said Clare Gilbert, chief counsel for AOL Europe. "All we ask for is a fair process of allocation."

A BT spokesman rejected the allegations and said: "The allocation process is utterly transparent. There's a website for a closed user group that all ISPs have access to and understand."

He said that engineers are allocated on a pro rata basis with ISPs getting roughly 40% of the number they ask for. He added that any unused slots are re-allocated on the same proportional basis.

Legal remedy

A spokesman for Oftel said it was already investigating a complaint lodged late last year by an industry group representing DSL suppliers about the way that the time of installation engineers was divided up. He added that this would now be extended to include the complaints by AOL and Freeserve, and it was now getting in touch with the companies to view the evidence they had gathered.

He declined to say what action Oftel would take against BT if it was found to be discriminating in favour of its own divisions, but said remedies were available under competition laws and the terms of BT's operating licence. The most draconian remedies could involve a fine or the award of damages.

But other ISPs defended BT saying that the process of allocating installation slots was being run fairly. Phil Worms, director of broadband services at Iomart, said BT Ignite had originally divided up the number of allocation slots by the number of ISPs who had applied to resell the service.

When it became apparent that not all net providers had people signed up, BT changed the system to allocate installation engineers to those companies who had customers waiting. "If I put 80 orders in today, there's a good chance that all 80 will get installed very quickly."

But Ms Gilbert said this did not excuse the fact that BT still seemed to be giving its own divisions 20 times more attention than its rivals.

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See also:

30 Jan 01 | Business
Thus scraps broadband plans
18 Jan 01 | Business
Oftel speeds up urban broadband
12 Dec 00 | Sci/Tech
Fast net is slow to arrive
18 Jan 01 | Business
Oftel calls industry summit
19 Jan 01 | Sci/Tech
High speed go slow
28 Jun 00 | Americas
DSL speeds the internet
14 Mar 00 | Business
Freeserve unmetered move
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