Why changing your on-line "shop" should be no harder than changing your supermarket

I blogged yesterday on the implications of the split of priorities between access to broadband and protecting the environment as revealed in the recent Policy Exchange report. Today I would like to expand on why I think Dido Harding was correct when she used the presentation meeting to call for more to be done to prevent the slide back into duopoly. She asked how many of the audience had shopped in more than one, two or three supermarkets in the previous week and how many had changed broadband supplier in that week. The latter question was not quite right. She should have asked how many of us had used more than one broadband supplier in the previous week.

My family is lucky, we have a choice of Tesco, Sainsbury, Co-op and Iceland within easy walking distance. Most days we shop in BOTH Co-op and Iceland (prices on some items differ by 20% or more) but we get most of our fruit and vegetables from a family stall which has been at the end of the street for over 80 years. Most weeks we also shop in Sainbury’s and occasionally in Tesco. Many in rural areas have no more choice of supermarket than of communicaitons supplier: it is Tesco or a very long drive. Tesco also has a market share akin to that of BT’s share of the broadband market (if you include Vodafone, EE and the other suppliers of “ubiquitous broadband”). 

We are also lucky in that we also have choice of broadband suppliers. Many years ago I took the view that the time and accountant fees involved in arguing with HMRC on how to split the cost of shared domestic/business services was greater than the cost of duplication. Last year we therefore used five landline-based services (from three suppliers), three contract and three pay as you go wireless services (from two suppliers), one satellite service and paid subscriptions a variety of ISPs for e-mail, security etc – as well as the usual “freebies”. Leaving aside the duplication caused by the split between business and domestic services, our actual usage is determined by what is available over which service at what cost (e.g. different availablity and pricing of premium content) and by geographic cover (different services have different hotspots and notspots on their wifi/mobile cover).

I recently dropped one of the broadband land-line services, rather than spend a day or so playing around with different routers and filters in order to be able to blag an engineer to call to find out why it had failed. We will therefore be reliant on mobile/wifi services if BT Infinity goes down, unless and until I contract another broadband landline service – if I do. As market and services structures (and family needs) evolve I would like to further rationalise and get better value from the £thousands a year that we spend on fixed and mobile communications services and content: in that total I include the BBC license fee, the family Sky Subscription, the costs I expect my wife to run up on her new pay-as-you-go smart phone (as my son instructs her on what she can do) alongside the various domestic and business service contracts and payments for Internet downloads and other premium rate services.

In the ideal world, I would like delivery contracts with two or three high street supermarkets so that we still shop around when we are too frail to physically travel. I would similarly wish connectivity  and support  contracts with two or three communications services, so that I am never likely to be completely “off air” and can also pick and mix my daily on-line “shopping” for content, products and services according to which is most accessible and/or best value from which access provider,  when, where and over which device(s) I am going on-line. I have yet to match my son who cannot get Virgin or BT Infinity in his flat in Wapping but whose smartphone and laptop seem to roam across access services and wifi networks according to where he is and what he wants to access. I have yet to ask ask him how much he pays over and above his mobile and landline contracts. I am, however, convenced that I need to make time to learn how he has achieved it.

 In looking at the potential choice of communications services for most consumers, the UK has not only BT, Virgin and their various infrastructure resellers (in which category I would include players like Talk Talk) but also EE, Sky and Vodafone (all building up their landline as well as radio and satellite infrastructures). We should also remember that only the resellers of services from players like Avanti and Inmarsat provide truly national cover (no not-spots unless you live at the foot of a hill without line of sight to their satellites). For business, there are also players, like Colt and Reuters providing services to most major financial centres.

And why should we not also have a kaleidoscope of local players providing integrated support to both public and private sector business users as well as access to local communities. I therefore look forward to seeing the EU give short shrift to BT and Virgin for trying to block Birmingham’s attempt to give communications connectivity to firms in the Jewelry quarter and Digbeth communications services that are at least comparable to those available to their overseas competitors – and preferably as far in the lead as they were when they were (for most of the 19th and early 20th centuries) suppliers of high precision, low cost, component manufacture and of innovative products and services to most of the world. I hope the result also gives other councils the confidence to act on the UK “market failure” and compete with each other (as well as the rest of the world) with regard to the provision of business (as opposed to consumer) broadband.

I would, however, also wish to highlight our current inability (whether as consumers or as businesses) to choose between price and quality and continuity of service. The latter is one of the factors which also determines where my wife and I spend our money in the high street When I started working from home (late 1980s) I paid £1,000 a year for an eight hour call out service from the best of the support operations we found when I ran the NCC Microsystems Centre. By the time I first needed a call out, nearly four years later, that service had been taken over three times and I had to wait two days. I did not bother to renew. By contrast my photocopier/laser printer provider (with whom I have had a contract for over 20 years) has always managed to get an engineer to me inside 24 hours. I therefore remain happy to pay their charges, even though most years I call on them only when I need toner packs in the post.

When it comes to domestic appliances and plumbing I have, however,  come to wonder if the various “insurance” contracts are worth cost. I live in an old house and rationalised onto one maintenance supplier expecting integrated service. But their failure to cover the cost when their serviceman condemned the flue on our central heating boiler which led me to re-read the small print, inclduidng of  the appliance cover, plus the response time offered on our last leak (I called Pimlico instead of wait) made me wonder if it is worth renewing. 

I want my short-list of communications suppliers to provide a call-out service akin to that provided by Pimlico Plumbers, even if they also charge me call-out and item of service fees that are only refunded if the fault is theirs. I know that the Policy Exchange report shows that most consumers put price above reliability (which I will use as a proxy for quality of service). But the gap is not great. More-over reliabilty comes above speed except for the urban young (see page 40 and 41).    

In short, Dido Harding was right. Do watch the video of the Policy Exchange meeting, including the bluster of the public affairs lobbyist who disagreed with her (comes about 45 minutes into the video, ten minutes after I asked the first question, quoting Bill Jones, “more bottlenecks than a brewery” comment to break that awkward pause that comes at the end of most really good panel discussions).   

P.S. I have no problem with signing 3 – 5 year contracts for basic connectivity  provided that I can vary my annual top up spend according to the volumne of traffic I put over the network and the quality of service and support I receive. I have no wish to rely on advertising funded services because I have no real confidence in the ability of the underlying business model to fund the resilience and quality of service needed for a critical utility