British Telecommunications PLC (BT) CEO Sir Peter Bonfield will step down in January 2002, a year ahead of schedule, he announced Wednesday.

BT is in the process of finding a replacement for Bonfield, who has served as CEO for the past six years, the company said in a statement.

Bonfield has headed BT at a time when the company and Bonfield himself have come under heavy criticism from competitors, users, the financial community and the U.K. telecommunication regulator.

It had been expected that Bonfield would exit with BT Chairman Sir Iain Vallance, who resigned last April and was replaced by Sir Christopher Bland, the chairman of British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC).

Since that time, Bonfield’s future with BT has been the subject of intense media speculation, even though he continually stressed that he had signed a contract securing his future until the end of 2002.

Bonfield has presided over BT at a time when it spun off its renamed wireless division MMO2 PLC in an effort to reduce its massive debt, sold assets in Japan and Spain to its rival Vodafone Group PLC and dissolved its international telecommunication carrier Concert Communications Co., which had been co-owned with AT&T Corp.