Will 2013 be the year when it became easier to get your broadband fixed than to change supplier?

Until earlier this year I dual sourced my broadband connections for resilience. Then, shortly after I had upgraded to BT Infinity, the standby line went down and I began the saga of “have you tried another router …”.

I have yet to decide on my future standby facilities – save that I would prefer not to use a supplier reliant on unbundled lines via the same BT exchange, let alone cabinet. I also have a prejudice against the former cable TV operator – who failed to restore service during the run-up to Christmas some years ago – resulting in my move to Sky. That probably means I will now rely on BT wifi and my mobile connections (again two operators) for standby. But I live in London and am supposedly spolit for choice  – until I check which is actually operational for my post code.

Broadband is part of the critical national infrastructure on which businesses large and small and individuals, young and old, have come to rely. But how often does your connection to the Internet (landline, radio connection, e-mail server(s) etc.)?  And what happens when it does? Why is it so hard to even get trhough to the call centres in India which tells you to do do what you already donel. Why can you not pay an “Internet plumber” a call-out charge, to be wiaved by the operator if it does turn out to be their equipment or servers – and not the line? Why is customer service such an an alien concept to those who claim their products and services are so robust that it can be outsourced to the far side of the world 

The current situation regarding the choices available to those willing to pay more in order to receive better service is not confiend to communactions providers but does illustrate how far Ofcom has “wandered” from what Parliament assumed would be its principal duty. The statement of “statutory duties and regulatory principles” does indeed begin with its principal “general duty”: This is “to further the interests of citizens”. But it then gives a curiously selective breakdown of its “specific responsibilities”. This omits many of the factors to which the 2003 Communications Act says it should “have regard” (from promoting competition and investment to considering the different interests of different ethnic and geographic communities). More particularly it does not mention section 5: “In performing their duty under this section of furthering the interests of consumers, OFCOM must have regard, in particular, to the interest of those consumers in respect of choice, price, quality of service and value for money.

The quality of services of most suppliers is critically dependent on that from BT Openreach.  The deterioration of their quality of service can be traced directly to local loop unbundling and the break up of previously integrated service operations at the same time as starting a race to bottom – wiping out BT’s margins and investment case and giving the UK the cheapest, slowest and least reliable broadband in Western Europe.

The recovery may have begun. Indeed the recovery in BT’s quality of service over the past 18 months is indeed impressive. But, as the following saga (on which I had my ears bent during my Christmas break away from the Westminster Village) indicates that they still have some way to go. And current regulatory and funding policy and priorities are not helping. The answer is not another round of BT bashing but an acceptance of the need to encourage both them and their competitors to invest in the quality of service that is essential for a  society that relies on its communication infrastructure. That includes enabling customers to choose to pay extra for resilience and support, including speed of response. That message is not, however, confined to the broadband infrastructure. It also applies to all those attempting to force us to use on-line services (from banking to healthcare) whcih has little or no routine for physical contact when the on-line service does not answer the question – or when the service goes down – hence, for example the Northern Rock panic.       


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The saga which triggered the above comments relates to BT’s service in a rural area but the source (who networks with teleworkers in many parts of the UK) said “If you think their service is bad, wait till you try the others.Most of those who I work with who switched away from BT have had even worse problems with their competitors andreturned because it provides the least bad service in their area.” Apparently there is only one broadband provider which makes a point of selling on quality of service and support rather than price. I had never heard of them. Apparently they do not waste money on advertising because they have all the business they can handle by word of mouth – and their growth is limited only by the supply of competant communications technicians.

[Here I would like to make another favourable comment about BT who are making serious efforts to rebuild their in-house training programmes despite the lack of serious encouragement from government. My next but one blog is likely to carry the title – “Will 2013 be the year of tax-free training for apprentices and those following contniuous professional development programmes?].  

The current UK problems with regard to communications skills can also be seen as a direct result of the changeof policy of the last Government from promoting competition in the local loop (Conservativepolicy before 1997) to local loop unbundling. This led, as predicted at the time, to seriousunder-investment in both infrastructure and skills because it destroyed the business case for BT to continue its programme to instal almost ubiquitous fibreby 2002. The only serious beneficiaries of local loop unbundling the bond-holders of NTL and Telewest.

My source (a busy consultant with many clients) works from home. They were informed that a routine upgrade would be carried out on [D-Day] and there should beno effect on equipment or service. On D-Day + 2 they could not connect tobroadband. They did the usual checks, still no connection. A fault was reported on D-Day + 4 and they were informed that an engineer could visit in the morning of D-Day + 12.  There was an offer to take £20 off the bill tocover the cost of a dongle pro tem and and they were warned there would be a £150 call outcharge if their (i.e. the customer’s) equipment was faulty. The customer then had to maketwo journeys to find a shop with a dongle (first, unsuccessful, to a nearby run-down seaside resort, second, successful, to the County town). This was followed by several phonecalls to the mobile operator to get it installed and a supply of credit logged on. Theythen found that the dongle would only work intermittently and only in the sun lounge atached to the house (several hundred years old with flint walls). The resultant service was also slow and frustrating to use.

On D-Day + 12 thecustomer waited until 1pm, rang and was told the engineer hadcalled earlier but noone was in and no one had answered the phone. The customer had been within sight of the glass fronted front doorall morning and knew this to be untrue. The customer asked the call centre to send the engineerback as he had been to the wrong address and was clearly in the area. This was refused.  The earliest new visit was D-Day + 19 when thecustomer was not available. D-Day + 22 was agreed. A customer service centre then talked thecustomer through re-plugging the line at the test socket etc. This did not resolve the problem. On D-Day + 16 the IT support engineer for one of the customer’sclients spent half a day at the house checking all the equipment, finding it infull working order. On D-Day + 22 theengineer called, found all equipment working perfectly. The line was also working but theupgrade meant it was no longer synchronised with the customer’s equipment. Hetherefore installed a new router and the service is now working. Thetotal cost to the customer was approximately £700 inlost earnings and additional expenses plus reputational damage with clients(e.g. “out of office” posted for 3 weeks saying unable to access e-mails because of broadbandfault).

Thissaga during the last quarter when I have been told that BT engineerswere under heavy pressure because the Olympic backlog was following by widspread flooding.It illustrates, however, just how vulnerable are those who seek to followgovernment advice and work from home or otherwise rely on on-line services – at least until such time as Ofcom focuses on its statutory priorities and enables and encourages communications supplies to compete on quality of service and not just headline price. It may be that the time has also come to revisit the British obsession with putting power and communications cables and equipment underground in areas that are prone to flooding.