Campaign for Unmetered Telecommunications

Yes, Minister, but... (23 October 1999)

As previously stated, we've been looking forward to our meeting with the 'e-Minister' for some time, and this finally took place on 20th October. It should be noted that was a formal meeting which the Minister knew we would report upon, and any comments she made were made on behalf of the UK Government.

The CUT delegation (in the shape of Rick and Erol) was warmly greeted at the DTI and the friendly atmosphere lasted throughout the 45-minute meeting.

Ms Hewitt agreed that the unavailability of an option of an unmetered tariff for local telephony is a serious barrier to the development of e-Britain. She wants to see the Internet develop further and faster in Britain than currently. Overcoming the barriers to this is high on the Government's agenda for forthcoming meetings with BT and OFTEL. A point which she seemed to appreciate is that it's not just a question of reducing per-minute charges but removing them altogether. Regardless of how small the increments, they are still there, and one needs to keep an eye on the clock.

Further points to note:

  • The Minister accepts that peak hour charges are a problem. She wants to see varied tariff packages including unmetered. The good news is that, on behalf of the Government, she unequivocally said she wants to see an unmetered option offered.

  • She promised to take up at a planned meeting with BT the issue of network congestion. BT are persistently using this as an excuse for why they refuse to implement an unmetered tariff option, most recently on Channel Four's teletext service. (If congestion is so much of a problem, why are they offering 0800 access to BT Internet subscribers at weekends?).

  • She also has a planned meeting with OFTEL when she will raise the issue of BT's stranglehold on the local loop and their chilly response to OFTEL's latest consultation on the issue.

  • The issue of metered interconnect charges between telecommunications operators is increasingly proving itself to be the main barrier to them offering unmetered tariffs and the Minister has agreed to take this up with OFTEL.

  • We asked her if the Government could act as an enabler as everyone we talk to (OFTEL, operators, ISPs) says they are in favour of an unmetered option but just points the finger at each other. She said whe wants to see the Internet grow more, faster and further. She is seeing BT and OFTEL in the next few weeks and will have this high on her agenda with them. After this she will decide what the Government can do to drive the matter forward.

A most encouraging moment came at the end of the meeting when the Minister did not need us to prompt her for a further meeting, but suggested herself that after she has spoken with OFTEL and BT she would like to maintain contact with us and meet again.

It is evident that the Minister is well-briefed. She understands the issues. We now have a clear policy statement that unmetered is a desired option and that its lack is a serious barrier to fulfilling a stated Government objective.

In all, a very positive meeting with lots of promises. It is now our job (and yours!) to ensure that the Goverment delivers on them.

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