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Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The superfast slippery slope UK is on

Oh, here we go! It has taken quite a while for our handful of UK incumbents to decide that all this public money being spent on bringing Britain into the digital age needed stamping on. Legally. Publicly. (Unless it was going into their coffers, of course). We are now seeing the litigious games of US incumbents coming to our shores. Called an "appeal" by BBC. These are spoiling tactics - nowt more 'n nowt less.

This blog post can be read at

During my trip to USA this year, I heard yet more horror stories of what the big telcos get up to when there is even a hint of competition on their patch. (There's a book in that and it is almost finished!) It is not like this bad boy behaviour is new news, and it is not as though we in the UK, especially at grassroots level, have been unaware of what our own telcos have got up to over the last decade and more when they do not like the encroachment of much-needed competition.

The Superfast Cornwall procurement went one step further with mutual 'helping out' by elected and publicly funded bodies, allegedly, but even when that competition is a new entrant with small yet exciting plans, or a tiny, rural community, the incumbents always show their fizzogs. Especially when citizens and businesses are seeking to obtain a sensible, logical and independent solution to the broadband woes that face far too many in this country due to years of telco inaction and heel-dragging.

In the news over the last few days are two stories which ought to cause those in government to rethink the current strategy of throwing (a pitiful amount of) money at a national, deep-seated (read: historic) and economically damaging problem.

First, we have the total incompetence of telcos (although this malaise is most certainly not limited to the telecoms industry - think 'banking' for starters) to put customer service on the list of business priorities. That link is just one minor example: hang out on any of the forums about consumer rights, broadband, trading standards etc and you enter a murky downward spiral that leaves you to wonder whether this country's businesses are totally clueless, uncaring and/or just plain greedy. And pondering how long before people power kicks in on a national scale where the government and regulators have clearly failed to.

(This ponderance though will leave you realising that consumers actually have very little broadband choice in this country. Unless you have a bottomless bank account to pay for a leased line or dedicated fibre. The first mile, especially in rural areas, is dominated by BT's copper meaning the vast majority of customers need to pay BT for a landline ; most broadband packages are a white label BT product; LLU has never been extended to sub-LLU, meaning BT retains its monopolistic hold at sub-loop level and this limits LLU providers to offering copper-based rather than full fibre products unless they deploy brand new infrastructure into the first mile; mobile broadband is still patchy and slow in many areas; satellite has technical, real-time restrictions in an increasingly real-time world; 4G is not yet a global standard and therefore susceptible to interpretation by the operators etc).

Ask yourself what exactly Ofcom are doing to resolve the consumer-side issues (that is their statutory duty after all: to protect consumer interest) and you may find yourself coming up short with the answer to that particular question. The government should focus its energies on getting the existing telco industry house (telco 1.0) in order. AND fund alternatives and innovation (telco 2.0), rather than lobbing scarce cash for more of the same old, same old.

The reason this problem is not going away in a hurry otherwise is that telcos (and mobile operators) have cut margins to such an extent that something /many things have to give. There is a battle for customers. Telcos resort to all sorts of tactics to encourage churn i.e. customers moving to a new operator. In times of economic recession, for many people, the deciding factor to move to a new service provider is (probably although still unproven) price. However, there have to be other reasons why any customer would reach the point where they are looking to move providers.

These range from:

  • Quality of service (sometimes zero as we hear far too many tales of people who have had no service, broadband or telephone or mobile, often for months)
  • Poor customer service (how long are people being kept on hold to premium rate numbers? These are telcos. If anyone could provide a free number for customer problems, you would think it would be them!)
  • Failure to adopt the required technologies eg symmetrical 100+ Mbps that consumers and businesses need, today and tomorrow
  • Failure to resolve technical issues (or quite simply passing the buck - one of the big problems caused by having only 2 commercial operators running the vast majority of the first mile)

  • and of course, price
Substantial marketing budgets ensure that many of the problems are glossed over, spun, anti-hyped into oblivion, and better still, telcos appear to take great delight in knocking the competition publicly, in places such as Twitter. Not many sectors would permit an MD of a company to use Twitter to speak ill of the competition, or to write unprovable but damaging allegations online, but telcos seem to think they are immune from the normal business and legal practices. Or so it would seem to your average man in the street.

The 'small voices' of the common man are drowned out by marketing £££s, hype, spin, politicians with their own agendas/careers to worry about, and a largely uninformed media. A politician can stand up over and over again and say we are going to be world-beating as far as broadband goes, when all the evidence quite clearly points to a contrary truth. In fact, it's all a bit Lance Armstrong (or, not trivialising the horrors of what he did, Jimmy Savile) TBH. A bloody major cover up of the facts.

The second news item I'd like to reference is the now well-reported decision by BT and Virgin to legally challenge Birmingham's plan to build a decent comms network. It's like the Kansas City debacle - "Unfair, m'lud," shout the telcos who have failed to do anything appropriate prior to this, and whose failure actually triggered the need to act by those voted in to protect the interests of residents.

Across the country, we are seeing BT scooping up the rural broadband pot. Mainly because the government wasted a vast sum of money setting up the BDUK system to work that way (One has to ask why. And keep asking).

The Urban pot has been set up a different way - not so easy for BT to get its hands on as there are far more experienced companies in urban roll-out who can compete in the tenders than in the (deliberately?) stifled rural procurement.

The fact is that there is market failure. If there was NO market failure, UK would be on the FTTH Council league table for FTTH, and list in many of the other surveys, reports, tables etc for a 'decent broadband connection.

In fact, it's worse than market failure. There has been market abuse, in particular by those with SMP (Significant Market Power).

Some of the stories that I have had the misfortune to hear over the years point to more than just dirty tricks; in some cases, it has been difficult to see how criminal or fraudulent activity can be discounted from the equation. For instance, 'magickally' damaged non-BT equipment within exchanges, luxury trips abroad for civil servants on the cusp of making multi-million pound contract decisions, and far, far more litter my notes. How can this any of this be permissible? How can a corporate evade investigation by the police, SFO, ombudsmen etc? Particularly if this 'behaviour' then puts the local authority in a compromising position when it comes to any contracts (paid for by the public purse, remember) that involve said corporate. BT's Vital Vision is one such program and the document includes the following paragraph:
There have been shenanigans surrounding grants and public funding for well over a decade now - one of the most recently well-documented such debacles is Ewhurst in Surrey - a saga which continues to this day with unresolved issues, failure to repair ancient infrastructure, appalling workmanship, constantly moving RFS dates etc.

I guess if BT had delivered, Ewhurst would once again become the Surrey idyll it strives to be. With its celebrity residents. But BT have failed to deliver anything of note. Whilst actively preventing others finding solutions. I hesitate to compare this level of behaviour with that of those who ignored the horrendous crimes against humanity that have been brought about by putting the people in fear of reporting failure at government or corporate level, but where the hell do you draw the line?

Where would much of rural UK be right now - after a summer that was not just soggy but completely sodden for many of our food producers - if they had just had a decent connection to the rest of the world? Why the hell are we permitting an incumbent that has had millions and millions of pounds of public investment and yet cannot be bothered to deal with even that most basic business issue - customer service - why would we let them rule our communications infrastructure? There are little to zero records of most of BT's ducting; yet, we allow PIA to continue on its path knowing that the ones who should know, know nothing.

Genius. Let them sue.

Let us spend years in court debating whether residents of inner city Birmingham deserve the RIGHT to a decent broadband connection that local people with local knowledge have identified as a problem because the telcos (VM and BT in this instance) have done sweet FA to solve, whilst the telcos in their ivory towers bring in the QCs at £1500/hr. And pshfiss our public funds away in court.

JFDI Birmingham. Build it Birmingham.
And show these miserable £££ hunting morons up for what they really are. Don't waste money on lawyers or QCs in expensive shoes and suits- bring in the people to speak up in court. About the reality.
Scared of a few more miles of fibre? Oh dear. As every gigabit community (fibrehood) goes live, you can hit your internal panic buttons as often as you wish. It will not change the fact that you dragged your heels for waaaaaaay too long. And now it could be too late for anyone to save you.
Docsis 3, FTTC, we won't miss thee, when we have FTTP

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