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Australian Telephony Network Opened Up

Telstra, Australia's partly-privatised public telephony carrier, has been forced to give up control over the last remaining part of its monopoly over local telecommunications networks.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has made a long-awaited decision to "declare the local loop". As part of a series of steps towards complete telecommunications deregulation, the decision mandates that Telstra must allow other carriers access to the copper lines which connect users to telephony exchanges, known as the local loop.

Telstra's competitors in the voice and data markets, such as Cable & Wireless Optus, AAPT, Davnet and OzEmail, will be allowed to install their own equipment at telephone exchanges.

The expected effect on telephony will be cheaper call charges for consumers, but the business world could also benefit in the long term in the Internet area because rival carriers will be able to deploy copper-based high bandwidth technologies like Digital Subscriber Line (DSL).

"The decision has large implications not only in the short-term for the provision of local calls, but for the emerging high-band width services on which e-commerce, education and entertainment will increasingly rely into the next decade," said ACCC chairman, Professor Allan Fels.

ISPs have been itching to deploy networks using several flavours of DSL for years, but because Telstra controlled the exchanges, it has been impossible until now to implement anything other than the so-called "splitterless" DSL variant which is markedly inferior in bandwidth limits.

The situation became farcical last year when Telstra moved to block ISPs who were using copper connections called "permitted attachment private lines" (PAPL), which were intended by Telstra to be used as fire alarms, to run DSL and other connection technologies to carry data.

The decision is a blow to the long-term profitability of Telstra's OnRamp ISDN network.

"In the ACCC's view, without this decision, it is unlikely that [complex data] services would have been made available on a reasonable commercial basis. Competitors would be overly dependent on Telstra's choice of technologies, platforms, service processes and timing," Prof. Fels said.

The decision is effective immediately, but the effects will not be felt in the Internet until after technical issues are resolved by telecommunications industry groups, the Australian Communications Industry Forum and the Telecommunications Access Forum.