HL Deb 28 March 2001 vol 624 cc262-3

2.47 p.m.

The Earl of Northesk asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they respond to the announcement of the intention of the European Commission to investigate the local loop unbundling process in member states, with particular reference to the European Commission campaign to have unbundled services up and running by January 2001.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the UK is not aware of any new investigation by the Commission into local loop unbundling. The Commission is actively monitoring the implementation of the regulation on unbundled access to the local loop, which came into force on 2nd January this year. We strongly support local loop unbundling as a further significant step in liberalising telecoms markets in Europe, and we are encouraging the Commission to secure effective implementation throughout the Community.

However, as well as unbundling, ADSL services, cable modems, optical fibre, broadband fixed wireless access and satellites all have the potential to offer broadband services. Our proposals for achieving the goal of having the most extensive and competitive broadband market in the G7 by 2005 was set out in the action plan, UK online: the broadband future, published on 13th February.

The Earl of Northesk

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, does he agree with the opinion put forward by the Trade and Industry Select Committee of another place that. thus far, the process of local loop unbundling in the UK has been "almost farcical"? In those circumstances, does he also accept that there is a need— some might even define it as urgent— for the Government to be involved more proactively with the process of local loop unbundling and, indeed, with the delivery of broadband generally?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Trade and Industry Select Committee did not say that. It said that the process of the bow wave was in danger of becoming almost farcical. However, that process will be at an end as at the end of this month. British Telecom has abandoned its demand management process and is prepared to take orders for any exchanges. It is prepared to do so at the rate of 200 exchanges a month.

Lord St John of Bletso

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is enormous confusion as to the various broadband options that are available both to the public and to businesses—that is, IDSL, ADSL, SDSL and even VDSL'? With the roll-out of ADSL being far slower than the Government had anticipated, do the Government have any figures relating to the number of ADSL customers and, in particular, non-BT customers?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Lord forgot to mention HDSL and perhaps VDSL.

The figures as of this week—in other words, by the end of March—are that ADSL is available in 839 BT exchanges, which cover 50 per cent of the population and 11.5 million homes. There have been about 45,000 installations.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, would the noble Lord the Captain of the Yeoman of the Guard kindly explain to the less initiated of us exactly what we are talking about, and would he be kind enough to do so in English and without acronyms?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, would the noble Lord like the long version or the short version?

We are discussing the digital subscriber loop, which could be asymmetrical. That involves using twisted copper wires—in other words, ordinary telephone wires—for digital connections, which are very much faster than normal connections.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, is it not a fact that there has been considerable delay in loop unbundling? What effect has that had on the Government's e-commerce strategy? Who is to blame—BT, Oftel, the e-envoy or perhaps the Government themselves?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I would not accept that there has been considerable delay. The European regulation came into force on 2nd January this year, as I have already said, but the necessary amendment to the BT licence took place on 8th August last year. If there is any delay at the moment, it is caused by commercial considerations rather than the failures of Oftel or BT; it is certainly not caused by the Government.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, how would Her Majesty's Government view a decision by BT to float off the local loop into a separate company in order to provide transparent access to other telecom companies?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, we have not been advised of any such intention but we would consider any such suggestion seriously.