Saturday, 26 April 2014
BT blocks path to global market
THE message is loud and clear. The future prosperity of the nation and viability of our businesses are inexorably linked to the world-wide web. This is especially true of rural economies. The Internet is crucial to sales and profits in a global market. TV Troubleshooter Lord Digby Jones reinforced the point when he dropped in to Ambleside to launch Cumbria University’s business hub. He urged the county’s companies to tap into the rising Chinese middle-class market, which cannot get enough luxury goods from us Brits, apparently. Well, I am sorry to be a prophet of doom. But if we rely on British Telecom, the monopolistic IT provider, our efforts are doomed to failure. The company has become so big and global economy focused that it has lost touch with its customers. I didn’t want to bother Lord Digby with our little local difficulties, but at the very moment he spoke to the cheering audience in Ambleside, the village where I live was without the Internet. The householders didn’t even have landline telephones. This was three full days after a cable collapsed and lay between the grazing sheep in a field. It took another three days for BT to get their act together and fix the fault. That meant that for six days this journalist could do no research, or access e-mails or communicate with his potential markets. Next door a doctor could not research her ground-breaking thesis, or offer her services as a locum. The other side a bed and breakfast business couldn’t book in any guests, even though one provisional booking was for workers from Open Reach, BT’s arms length repair service. Oh irony of ironies. The mail order business over the way could not sell or dispatch anything; the caravan site owners up the road couldn’t take bookings or even pay its staff through the electronic system it uses. A week is 2 per cent of a year. 2 per cent can make the difference between profit or loss, viability or administration. Yet despite the crucial nature of this very obvious fault, could we get BT to respond? Not quickly enough. Like most of the villagers, although not all, I have a mobile phone, so as soon as I became aware of the lack of Internet and landline phone on Easter Sunday I contacted BT, or their agents, in Asia. They told me that as it was Easter, they had no engineers and the clock wouldn’t start ticking until Tuesday. They then had four days to fix the fault. I said that wasn’t good enough and asked to register a complaint, which is what I was told would happen. The next day, Easter Monday I found the fault, the cable lying in a field. My neighbor tells me he has been telling BT for years that their cables are slung too low across the fields and are bound to get snagged in farm machinery. Some of the telephone poles are rotten. One even has a woodpecker nest in it. BT ignores these little local problems until there is an emergency. Then they take four days plus Bank Holidays to respond. I rang my friend in Bangalore or wherever to tell them my exciting news. I don’t think it was even the same city I was talking to, and they confirmed it would be the following Thursday before they got started. When I squealed they said I was the only complainant and it was being handled as a single customer problem. I then toured the village to find that every other resident (nine households) had complained their businesses were completely blocked by the fault. I also found out that the caravan site owner was actually a BT business customer and was thinking of quitting as his upload speed was one third of one Mega-Byte. I confirmed mine was less than 1MB. Stress levels were rising and the only conversation when we met in the lanes was how BT was ruining lives and businesses. Then joy, on Tuesday an Open Reach engineer turned up, climbed one of the offending poles and with his little hand-held computer tried to fix each connection in the junction box. After telling him how pleased we were to get some action, I said that although I am no expert I thought he was wasting his time and pointed out the offending cable in the grass. He looked shocked, even though I had told BT the problem two days previously. He descended and was joined later in the day by a van load of clip-board holders, who took notes, shook their heads and disappeared again. On Wednesday an Open Reach van appeared and said that new cables, poles and junction boxes would have to be ordered and it would probably be the week after that before work started. Another neighbor went to the nearest Open Reach depot, in Kendal, to make his views known. On Thursday a van and a cherry-picker turned up and the cable restored. Within minutes Internet and land-lines were working again. The poles are the same rotten ones. The cable still hangs low over the fields. If rural areas are really to be given a level-playing field in the global economy, then the infra-structure needs to be in place to support them. Cables slung over fields are susceptible to wind, ice and tractors. High speed broad-band is not even an option on such copper wires on Victorian technology. It doesn’t matter which Internet provider you use, unless it is satellite, the Internet comes down wires maintained, or not, by BT. In the long term, fibre-optic cables, laid underground are the only answer, unless you are lucky enough to live near a business hub. In the short to mid-term, BT needs to drastically improve its customer service. Until that happens rural economies are destined to lose out in the global market.