The story of Unicom's ongoing efforts to set up its first fixed-line network in the city of Tianjin illustrates the muscle China Telecom wields in thwarting the advance of its fledgling rival. The 50,000-line network, launched with great fanfare last July, remains largely idle and awaiting vital interconnection to the public network. Not a single customer has been connected. In the past couple of weeks, Unicom has claimed a breakthrough is at hand. Officials in Tianjin said they had been promised interconnection by July 18, the anniversary of the network's initial launch. Sceptics point out promises have been made before and broken. The trials of the Tianjin network mirror the story of Unicom itself. It is well understood that the central government's Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications fought tooth and nail to prevent Unicom from going ahead with its vision for Tianjin. The project reached State Council level, where a small committee was formed to examine the issues. In May last year - in a document known as Article 39 - the State Council gave its approval to the Tianjin project along with two others: one in Sichuan, the other in the newly created central government-administered municipality of Chongqing. Backing Unicom in building the Tianjin network is Tianjin Global Communications Co, a joint venture between US-based Sprint, Japan's Sumitomo Corp and local partner Tianjin Communications and Construction Investment Co. At the end of last February, the network was 98 per cent completed, barring the last stretch of copper to potential customers. With no one signed up, installing that remaining link seemed unnecessary until a clearer picture of the network's future emerged. The network was designed to target larger, higher-value business rather than residential customers. Representatives of the project have met regularly officials from the local posts and telecommunications authority (PTA) for talks on interconnection, yet the necessary commitments remain elusive. Before this news of a promised interconnection date emerged, Tianjin Global Communications chief executive Bob Becker said: 'I don't think Unicom has the clout to do any more than it is doing.' The local PTA claims one of the factors holding up interconnection is the need for an interface switch between Unicom and China Telecom. 'There's no reason for a switch,' Mr Becker said. It is not clear whether the agreement Unicom believes has been reached includes a resolution to this switch problem. The network has signed up about 40 data customers, all registered businesses which use it to send information between locations within Tianjin. Unicom's initial plans to bring about 300,000 lines to the network in three years look hopelessly ambitious, given progress in the past year. Despite its success at staving off competition, the local PTA has begun responding to the likely arrival of its competitor. Since last year the company has lowered connection charges levied on customers by four times. Unicom's fixed-line ventures in Chongqing and Sichuan provinces, which are at present limited to Chengdu, the province's capital, are of a scale similar to Tianjin's as well as targeted at corporate customers. The foreign partner helping to fund and build both projects is Asian American Telecommunications Corp (AAT), a division of Metromedia. Both networks, too, await interconnection, although construction lags behind that of Tianjin. AAT chief operating officer Mark Hauf said he was encour aged by the news from the Unicom Tianjin branch. He now thinks a July or August interconnection date for Chengdu is possible, with Chongqing coming on line later in the year. Unicom's phase-one build-out plans are targeting 30,000 lines in Chengdu and 20,000 in Chongqing. Mr Hauf said this goal should be reached during the third quarter of this year. Eventually, Unicom aims to compete throughout Sichuan with its own fixed-line network.