Telecom operators complain over UK exemption

Financial Times ; By Deborah Hargreaves In Brussels, 15-Dec-1999;

The European Commission is expected next week to grant Britain a three-month exemption from plans to make it easier for consumers to choose their long-distance phone operator.

From January 1, all European Union countries are required to introduce measures that will enable customers to select their long-distance phone company, but Oftel, the telecoms regulator, had asked for a two-year breathing space, saying it was technically too difficult to comply earlier.

Competing telecoms companies have complained to the Commission that postponing the introduction of the rules in Britain will help British Telecommunications retain its large share of the residential phone market. "It is nothing short of a hidden phone tax for consumers," said Michael Potter, of California-based Sun Telecom, which has a UK base in Cambridge. He said rivals could undercut BT prices if it were easier for customers to choose a competing operator.

In Britain, customers have to dial a four-digit code at the beginning of their calls if they want to use a network belonging to a long-distance carrier other than BT. The Commission wants consumers to be able to dial using the long-distance operator of their choice without having to enter any special code.

"We're aware that some people would like to have this in earlier, but we just can't meet that deadline," said Oftel. The regulator has said that by April, it could install an autodialer in homes that would automatically dial the necessary four-digit code, but would not be able to meet the full requirement for automatic choice until the end of 2001.

The Commission is expected to ask the UK to speed up the introduction of automatic carrier choice and could threaten to take legal action if it does not comply.

Mr. Potter wants the Commission to press Britain to comply with the new rules in line with all other EU countries. He said. "The UK has one of the most sophisticated networks in the world and has had a competitive market for much longer than any other country in the EU, but still says it needs an extra two years to implement this." He said competing telecoms companies could mount their own legal challenge and claim damages if the EU rules were not implemented more quickly.

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