Barking Bulldog needs to pick up the scent

Making a dog's dinner of customer support is no way to pay back the hard work of all who've worked for telecom liberalisation

You can't overvalue free and fair competition. Successful companies need innovation, a talented workforce and a generous dose of luck, but without a reasonably level playing field it's far too easy for one dominant player to subdue its rivals and squash start-ups.

BT has long been accused of tilting the game, using dirty tricks to keep other companies out of its network and maintain market share.

It's taken a while, but Ofcom has got the matter in hand. They've finally forced BT to open up its network to rivals at reasonable prices. So it's all the more disappointing to hear tales of woe from customers at Bulldog.

Bulldog is one of a select handful of companies who have taken on the challenging task of unbundling BT's local network to provide their own broadband services. It was bought by Cable & Wireless last year, giving it the muscle it needed to really take the fight to BT with exciting products such as its 8Mbps service.

Instead — according to our readers — Bulldog's offering is verging on the shambolic. Customers tell us that their service simply doesn't work, and when they try to call customer support they can't get through.

Bulldog insists that the 'vast majority' of users are happy, but the level of complaint we've had belies that. Compared to what we hear about its competitors, the company seems to have a real problem.

Regulators, politicians and campaigners have toiled for years to open up the UK telecommunications market. Even BT has done its bit. But BT would like nothing better than to turn around to Ofcom and say "We've done what you said, and look what's happening". Competition should be a chance to cast light on a market; Bulldog is in danger of using its customer base as a lamp-post and eroding its own support, rather than eating away at BT's iron grip.

We saw a similar tale in the networking world in the 1990s. Novell blew its grip on the networking market by failing to improve Netware while Microsoft very slowly improved its own networking offerings — ultimately extending its control into servers while the competition necessary to keep the market healthy threw its chance away.

The lesson is that whether you're the incumbent or the newcomer, once you have your niche you cannot afford to neglect the need to provide good service and to develop your product. Bulldog is in danger of acquiring a terrible reputation that will choke off its cash flow exactly when it needs revenue to compete — which would be a criminal waste, given the struggle we've all had to give it the chance to bite.