“Superfast broadband is much faster and more reliable than standard broadband. It lets you make video calls, do homework online and stream music, all at much higher speeds – and all at the same time.”
That’s what the Government says, and they’re right too. With online activity driving everything from booking a flight to publishing a novel, the faster one’s internet connection the more satisfying and productive one’s personal and professional life will be. For businesses, a nippier net would be a marked advantage, bringing greater efficiency and healthier revenues. There’s no downside to this – jobs will be created, economies will be invigorated, funny pet videos will be uploaded at an even greater rate. And it certainly seems a better investment than the tens of billions we’re going to be spending shaving seventeen minutes off the journey from Sheffield to St. Pancras. Indeed, ministers are so animated about the new-fangled rapid broadband, they’ve splashed out on a snazzy advertising campaign to promote it. Here’s the telly spot:
Inspiring stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. However, you must now cool your ardour and prepare yourself for disappointment. Because the reality of this brave new world wide web is one of bitter tears and tooth-grinding frustration.
This isn’t The Guardian’s consumer page, so I’ll try not to lapse into a diatribe of complaint, but I must share my experience, so you might contrast what you have just seen with the actuality. I should also add that each call to the service provider involved a wait of at least ten minutes before anyone answered (at my expense, as a computer had picked up the call and had me push a dozen buttons before the wait began).
“Sadly, this was a lie.”
In February, the telecoms company EE (formerly Everything Everywhere) announced they had cabled up my locality and were now offering fibre-optic, superfast broadband. ‘That’s handy’ I thought, ‘I’m already an EE customer, so upgrading will be a breeze.’ Actually, I was a customer of Orange (formerly Wanadoo, formerly Freeserve), but they belong to EE now. Anyway, the advertising had done its job, and I jumped on their sales line to book my piece of the action. Notably, this was the only call which connected instantly. I arranged to be hooked up, negotiated a discount and was pleased to be promised a new router within 24 hours, then a ‘switch-on’ within ten days.
Sadly, this was a lie. The router arrived promptly, but when I checked my account, I could see the activation date was now twenty days from order. So I called EE, to ask why the date had changed. A gruff operative told me there was no way the switch-on could ever have happened in ten days and I had probably misunderstood. I hadn’t, but I reluctantly accepted the new deadline, figuring I had little choice. 48 hours later, an email arrived. It confirmed the cancellation of my superfast broadband order. Back to the phone. This time it was explained that EE had given BT (who own the cables, apparently) a non-existent postcode, BT had rejected it and the order had been cancelled. Nothing to be done, I’d have to start again. This pushed the ‘on’ date back to twenty six days from order. I stewed for a while, decided this wasn’t good enough and phoned EE again, to insist they rectified the situation. On this call I was informed a new booking hadn’t been placed and they wouldn’t be able to switch me on for a further three weeks. With all the cool menace I could muster, I made it clear my confidence in their service was spent, and I intended to withdraw my custom and sign up with a competitor.
“It is clear the companies tasked with taking us into this glorious future are largely incompetent.”
Which is what I did, knowing I would have to begin the process once more. In a perfect world, I would have superfast broadband right now. Regretfully though, EE had failed to lift their charge over my line, which set my new order back by ten days. Finally, this terminal insult was fixed and I’m told engineers will be arriving next Thursday to usher me into the shimmering galaxy of ultra-rapid internet use. We’ll see.
Of course, I may just have been very unlucky. It’s feasible that 99% of all superfast connections are made without difficulty, but a quick trawl through the message-boards and forums suggests otherwise. In fact, it is abundantly clear the companies tasked with taking us into this glorious future are lumbering, under-prepared, poorly staffed and largely incompetent. However well-intentioned this government campaign may be, it is a waste of money and effort, thanks to the British aversion to customer service. While this agonising journey is accepted and acceptable, the uptake of superfast broadband will be poor. I only pressed on because I need the best connection possible for my work. If I apply the ‘mother’ test (a benchmark for technology established by asking ‘Would my mum be comfortable and satisfied when using this?’), then superfast broadband falls at the first hurdle. Sensibly, my mum would have decided the whole charade was far too much trouble, abandoning the process in favour of a more constructive use of her time.
It’s also very noticeable how much work the consumer is asked to carry out, in order to become a paying customer. For instance, switching internet providers requires something called a MAC code. It would be perfectly reasonable to expect one company to obtain that from the other – but no. The onus is on you, the punter, to request the code and convey it. Decide to buy your carrots from a different supermarket and you’d be outraged to be asked for the barcode from the former retailer’s vegetables. Nevertheless, something similar is the norm in the realm of fibre optic internet.
We should have learned this lesson from the semi-failure of DAB. This too, was revealed with highly energetic campaigns from government and broadcasters; but the product was expensive, the service patchy and the signal intermittent. By the time the hype died away, many listeners had decided to stay with their old FM sets, and the whole project was left struggling. To an extent, that remains the case.
Which is exactly the fate facing superfast broadband, unless somebody, somewhere, takes the technology by the throat and makes it simple and enjoyable; rather than this inevitable vale of pain. In the meantime, the rest of the world will soar away from us – streaming movies, uploading content, transferring data, buying, selling and communicating at a lightning pace, while we sit in stasis, on dreadful customer helplines, listening to hideously distorted renditions of ‘Groovejet’ and mumbling softly to ourselves.
Magnus Shaw – March 2015