THEMIS TO ADJUST TELECOM MARKET
The direction in which Bulgaria's telecom sector will go will become known on June 9 when a 5-member panel of the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) will hear the appeal of the Bulgarian Telecommunciations Company (BTC) against the decision of the Commission for Regulation of Telecommunications (CRT), allowing the use of channels, towers and telecom equipment of rival companies. This was announced on May 10 by the SAC where the case was initiated. BTC's appeal is against a ruling of a 3-member panel of the SAC, which found legal CRT's demand to stipulate explicitly that a subject of the general terms is the joint use of premises, telecom equipment, channels, towers, etc. The magistrates ruled that any economic subject with a monopoly on a certain market and owning an installation or infrastructure without access to which other participants in the market could not provide services to their clients, should be obliged to permit their joint usage. At that, at equal terms and cost-oriented prices. A refusal to do that without objective grounds or setting less disadvantageous terms than those at which the owner operates, is unfair competition. The ruling of SAC's 5-member team on June 9 will be final and there is no appeal. It will practically decide the outcome of the argument between the BTC and the cable operators about the use of the telecom's collector network, which directly affects INTERNET providers as well (in most cases both services are offered by one and the same operator). Cable operators use also BTC's radio and TV towers where they have installed transmitting devices. According to unofficial information, their number exceeds 5,000 and for almost all of them some contracts for rent or joint use have been signed. But some of the contracts were closed by the local heads of TV towers, at that at token prices, BTC insiders claim. According to pundits, the telecom's next step will be to take the stock of the multiple devices on the towers (which are not its property) and demand redrafting of the contracts at terms and prices that are equal for all other operators. Alternative operators, using BTC's fixed network and offering telephone conversations via INTERNET (at much more competitive prices), are in the same situation. For all of them the decision of SAC's 5-member panel is of exceptional importance, although the argument at present is mainly between cable operators and the telecom. The row between them reached its culmination two weeks ago when the BTC announced its intention to raise as of May 1 by almost 50% (from BGN0.19 to BGN0.29 before VAT per 1 meter of cable plus BGN180 for an amplifier or another device in the shafts) the price for the use of its underground channel connection. The Bulgarian Association of Cable Operators (BACO) reacted sharply against that decision, pointing out that it was made without an approval from the regulatory body (CRT) and despite the ruling of SAC's 3-member team. Cable operators approached also the Commission for Protection of Competition (CPC), complaining of unfair competition on the part of BTC.Following noisy arguments, threats and mutual accusations, thanks to the intervening of the CRT, the telecom and BACO signed on May 5 an agreement about the terms for the use of the collector network. Cable operators promised to declare by May 2005 all the cables they have installed there and sign new contracts, regulating their installation. BACO's representatives also undertook to cooperate with the BTC for the removal of cables, placed without its knowledge. The telecom, on its part, agreed to postpone by two months the introduction of new general terms for laying cables in its collector network. They will also contain the new prices which caused the arguments. If SAC's 5-member panel confirms the ruling of the 3-member team, the BTC will have to move to the CRT its new draft of general terms, which will enter into effect only after its approval. But if the court decides in favour of the BTC, there will certainly be new unrest on the telecom market, at that - among all other providers of telecom services (cable operators, INTERNET providers, and alternative telecoms).