The European Commission is to take legal action against member countries whose former telecommunication monopolies have failed to open the local loop to competition, Erkki Liikanen, commissioner for enterprise and the information society, said yesterday.

Earlier this week, 13 telecommunication companies, including KPNQwest, Energis and Worldcom, wrote to the Commission complaining that incumbent telecommunication companies are failing to permit new entrants fair access to telephone lines that lead directly to people's homes and to businesses.

The companies claim that prices for access to the local loop varied across Europe by as much as 300 per cent, and delivery times were showing "extraordinary deterioration". For example, in Germany it can take up to nine months for a competitor to activate an ADSL (asynchronous digital subscriber line) connection for a customer, they said. They also claim that in the UK competitor access is complicated by "exorbitant migration charges".

Liikanen acknowledged these complaints, saying that the problem is not only about anticompetitive pricing by the incumbents, but also the long delays they impose on leasing lines to competitors.

"Those countries that are slowest to liberalize the telecommunication infrastructure are paying high costs," Liikanen said. "Those countries also see lower Internet penetration."

The Commissioner would not divulge which member states were the worst offenders. More details will be published next week in the Commission's annual report on telecommunication liberalization in the European Union (EU).

Liikanen said that high-speed internet access across ADSL lines has developed during the year: "The incumbents have been very active in developing ADSL, but some competitors cannot get there."

The EU passed a law at the beginning of this year forcing member states to open up the local loop to competition.