Broadband misses its connection

As broadband promises get bolder, performance has never been worse. Unless the industry starts taking its customers seriously it will be in serious trouble

Bereavement, divorce and moving house: famously, life's most stressful events. The British broadband industry is keen to change this: it wants to make 'changing ISP' the equal to any of those more established happenings.

It should be easy. There's even a mechanism in place: you call up your current supplier, get a Migration Authorisation Code (MAC), pass that on to your intended ISP and let them negotiate the transition. Ideally, you won't even notice when it happens.

As Ofcom has reported, chance would be a fine thing. ISPs refuse or fail to produce MACs, lines acquire 'tags' that prevent change, promises fail to be kept. It's worse when ISPs go out of business or get into disputes with their wholesalers: customers are left with few choices and the threat of no service for weeks or months.

That's before the question of whether the service promised is that provided. Your free, unlimited, high-speed connection will probably cost you plenty even before you run into the per-month cap — assuming you're getting anywhere near a fast-enough link to download that much data before you die of old age.

Far from being the final frontier on the road to cyberspace, the industry increasing resembles a Wild West of snake-oil salesmen, preachers offering eternal connectivity in exchange for modest payment, and cowboys who see customers as mere heads of cattle to be roped in as required. It runs the risk of taking over from the mobile phone business as the technology market that offers the most and delivers the least.

With so much of our economy going online, this cannot continue. The perception — rightly — is that self-regulation isn't working because the companies concerned just don't care. There's still time for them to sort themselves out, and it wouldn't take much. Advertise services they can deliver. Be clear about restrictions and limitations. Say what they'll do, and do it.

These are the basics of a trustworthy consumer market, and can easily be enforced by regulators and standards bodies if necessary. A heavily regulated market is not in keeping with the times, but there are times when it is necessary and even to be welcomed. If the broadband industry doesn't fancy living in such times, it knows what it has to do.

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