An open letter to Stephen Carter, head of Ofcom, which will get lost in regulations ...

by Guy Kewney | posted on 09 November 2004

Dear Stephen Carter: you are presiding over the strangling of comms in the UK. Are you doing anything about it?

Guy Kewney

Here's just one example: a friend of mind is moving house, and wants broadband in his new one.

He went to Nildram, his ISP, and told them where the new house was. They arranged for it to be connected to the digital subscriber line access multiplexer right away. It was done. Bingo!

Well no. Bingo, until BT bureaucracy got hold of it.

First, obviously, they disconnected it. "The phone line belongs to the current householder, who is terminating their service," was the explanation. "So we're terminating the ADSL broadband service with it."

Next, quite understandably, they couldn't re-connect it. The "cease of service order" was in the process of being carried out. That is a serious matter, you understand, and not something you can just do with a flick of a switch. No, no no; it takes a week. "You will need to place a new order."

So my friend placed a new order. Clearly, that wasn't acceptable. How could it be? "We can't accept a new order until three days after the cease of service order is implemented," explained BT. A different part of BT, of course; this is BT Wholesale.

So my friend attempted to ring up BT Wholesale to explain the mistake. Well, that was silly of him. "As a wholesale operation, we are not permitted to talk to retail customers!" they said, and that was that. But of course, they couldn't tell him that. They told Nildram.

Actually, exactly what they told Nildram is another mystery. Nildram passed the message on to my friend as: "We can't talk to BT Wholesale; we have to interface to BT Retail. Only you can contact BT Wholesale ... " which BT Wholesale would probably say is incorrect - if one could talk to them.

But BT Retail, them, you can talk to. They said: "You need to talk to BT Broadband." Who in turn said: "We can't talk to BT Wholesale." It became blindingly obvious, straight away: nobody was able to explain the difference between "broadband on your BT line" and "BT Broadband" and "broadband from BT". No of course they aren't all the same thing! They're three quite, totally, utterly separate concepts. Surely, everybody is aware of that?

And so the newly-installed ADSL service was ceased. Exactly who will get the bill for that installation, and the subsequent bill of costs for "ceasing" remains unclear.

My friend now has a dialup PSTN phone line, and that's all. In another three days, he will be allowed to order another ADSL line.

Now, this amusing tale is not caused only by bureaucratic incompetence. It's a mess, but necessary, in order to prevent BT Wholesale doing special favours for BT Broadband, who would also be in a position to do deals for BT OpenWorld - who of course, compete in the market with other retail customers of BT like (for example) Nildram.

The whole problem is caused, quite simply, because the Government is allowing BT to operate as wholesale, distributor, and retail in the same market as its customers.

In any other industry, this sort of channel conflict would mean that the business would desert BT Wholesale, and go elsewhere. It's not acceptable business practice. But of course, BT has a monopoly of its copper, and so (in any other monopoly business arena) it would be the subject of complaints to the monopolies commission, court orders, and anti-trust suits.

Here in Britain, all that happens is that Ofcom and the DTI organise yet another labyrinth of regulatory loopholes.

The thing is, we wouldn't mind, if these loopholes had the effect that they are intended to have - to create a level playing field. But they don't. Magically, despite the fact that BT Broadband "can't talk to" BT Wholesale, we see time after time that Wholesale is somehow able to read their thoughts

For example rural areas are told they can't have broadband. So a small local company is set up to provide the business via wireless and suddenly! - by mystic forces! the local exchange is ADSL-enabled, and the number of customers required to trigger installations drops from 300 to 120. And BT Broadband gets the business, and the small local company is wound up. Coincidence, naturally, or telepathy.

Whether magic, astrology or dowsing, this process is immune to the bureaucratic nightmare which has been created to prevent it.

There really is only one cure: split BT as Peter Bonfield originally planned, into completely separate companies.

Then, BT Broadband could price its broadband network at cost. I've been told, often, how much they resent having to price it higher than needed, in order to "permit competition" and how much they'd like to charge £11 a month wholesale. I know a lot of retail broadband providers who'd like to be able to negotiate down to that sort of level too.

And BT OpenWorld could compete without its hands tangled up in rubber bands and red tape.

And smaller companies, like Nildram, could get on with their actual work, rather than having to wade through Alexandrian complexities of bureaucracy, regulation, and easily-torn Chinese walls.

Ofcom is the only body capable of overseeing this, and you're not going to do anything about it, are you? In fact, in the unlikely event that this even gets to you, the only thing you could do about it, would be to organise another committee to oversee some new regulations ...

You're strangling communications in the UK, Stephen.

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