New telephone plans block competitors

WITH THE cancellation of the fixed-line telecoms monopoly enjoyed by Slovak Telecom (ST) now less than three months away, customers may find they have less choice than they thought.
According to the current telecoms law, ST's monopoly on fixed-line service ends in January 2003, after which time the company is obliged to ensure access between its clients and alternative telecoms providers, as well as enabling users to keep their current phone numbers.
However, in late September ST customers received leaflets along with their phone bills indicating that users of optional ST services for high and low call volumes, as well as optional ISDN services for high-speed data, would not be eligible to switch operators in the future.


Graph: TASR, Source: Statistics Office

WITH THE cancellation of the fixed-line telecoms monopoly enjoyed by Slovak Telecom (ST) now less than three months away, customers may find they have less choice than they thought.

According to the current telecoms law, ST's monopoly on fixed-line service ends in January 2003, after which time the company is obliged to ensure access between its clients and alternative telecoms providers, as well as enabling users to keep their current phone numbers.

However, in late September ST customers received leaflets along with their phone bills indicating that users of optional ST services for high and low call volumes, as well as optional ISDN services for high-speed data, would not be eligible to switch operators in the future.

The leaflets, titled Greater Choice for traditional home service and This Call Must be for You for business and ISDN service, promote new voluntary programmes that ST says address the key needs of large market segments, but that critics call an attempt to circumvent ST's legal obligation to allow competition.

In what is the latest clash in an ongoing battle between ST and the Association of Telecoms Operators (ATO), alternate telecoms companies say that the dominant provider is continuing a pattern of abuse and delaying market liberalisation. ST claims that its actions are within the law and have received the go ahead from the market regulating Telecoms Office (TÚ).

"The limitation applying to optional calling programmes was announced to users in advance with the approval of the TÚ," said ST in a prepared statement in early October, explaining that the company is only required to allow alternatives for its standard programmes, not its optional ones.

"This limitation [of carrier choice] is only on programmes that are voluntary. If a customer doesn't like a programme, for example because it is not possible to select an operator, then he can sign up for a basic programme that allows this service," said ST spokesperson Gabriela Nemkyová.

The TÚ says that the policy is within the law. "By providing a standard solution to opening [the telecoms market] to alternative operators and clients as well as its owns solutions for its customers, ST is absolutely in line with similar companies in EU countries," said TÚ officials in a prepared statement.

However, representatives of the ATO have complained that ST's move is another attempt to stifle competition and ensure its own dominance in the telecoms sector.

"It's an obvious abuse of its market position," said ATO head Vladimír Ondrovič, adding that the group would pursue action through the TÚ as well as the Antimonopoly Office (PMÚ).

The ATO has long complained of what it calls attempts by ST and others to derail market liberalisation, most recently when the Slovak parliament failed to override the veto of President Rudolf Schuster on an updated telecoms law in August.

That law would have hastened reform in the sector, said ATO, not only by allowing the entry of competitors into the market but also by requiring ST to unbundle its local loops - the "last mile" connection with homes and businesses.

Schuster said he rejected the law because he considered the fines that would be levied by the TÚ to be excessively high. Its failure gives ST a reprieve from opening its local loops, at least until a new law is passed. That is not expected until next spring.

TÚ spokesperson Roman Vavro said that while his office has seen nothing wrong as yet, any investigation or possible action into ST's new calling plans would have to wait until the new year and the law's implementation.

"Considering that this obligation [to allow competitors access] is valid from the beginning of next year and that the law does not clarify how this obligation should be met, we are not going to comment on it for now," said Vavro.

"[But ST's move] cannot be evaluated as some kind of restriction on the competitive environment. This solution is fully in harmony with the law and also with all European standards of liberalising telecoms markets," he added.

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