Broadband, the poor relation among utilities

Broadband Internet is supposed to be a utility -- many people even say it's a human right. But the providers don't see it that way when you move house.

August seems to be my jinxed month for Internet connection (or perhaps this is the cloud's way of telling me I should take some time off). In previous years, I've written about my agonising experiences with mobile broadband while on vacation in Europe. This year, I've taken a 'staycation' because I and my family have been moving house. So my tale of woe this August is all about the difficulties of getting broadband service started at the new address.

Broadband Internet is supposed to be a utility — many people even say it's a human right. But the providers don't see it that way when you move house. I arrived in my new home a week ago. There was energy and power. The water was flowing. None of these presented any problem whatsoever. It was just a matter of changing the customer names on the accounts and reading the meters. But it was a different matter when it came to communications. The phone was disconnected and there was no prospect of broadband Internet until almost two weeks away. That length of wait to get service delivered does not in my view merit the title of a utility, with its connotations of reliable, always-on provision.

What irks me most of all is that I, like a growing number of other people, work from home and the broadband connection is critical for that work. Everyone is up-in-arms when there is so much as a two-hour outage of an online service such as Amazon or Microsoft BPOS. Routinely inflicting two-week outages on economically significant workers like this ought to be a national scandal. (Or is Eric Schmidt right, and the UK simply doesn't take technology seriously enough?)

It wasn't meant to be this way. Knowing how problematic it can be to get broadband switched over when moving home, I had taken great care to book it in as early as possible. The same day we signed contracts on the house, I got on the phone to BT and explained why I needed the service up and running as soon as possible after we moved in. I was delighted with the initial response. I was told to expect the router a few days beforehand and that the service would be installed on the day we moved in.

It didn't happen, and there are a number of ready culprits to blame. The provider is BT, Britain's former national carrier and still sclerotic in many aspects of customer service and internal organisation. Another easy scapegoat are the Indian call centers, who handled many of my calls. Providers would probably want to blame Government regulation, which is designed to foster competition but creates a byzantine maze of hoops they have to jump through when a new customer moves in (though it has to be said, many of these are of their own making). Perhaps it's just that the broadband providers simply don't have any of the public service ethos that was once a proud part of the tradition of the utility industries but which has long since been forgotten in the past few decades' swirling mists of deregulation and privatisation.

Individual agents at BT did their best to help me, but the company's systems ultimately let them down. The first agent I spoke to delighted me, as I said, with a promise that unfortunately wasn't fulfilled. After this setback, a second agent promised a new installation date two working days later but didn't follow through. A third agent did at least succeed in getting the phone service working on the day we moved in. His name is Vijid and he proved himself a paragon of individual customer service, calling me back several times to report on his efforts to advance the broadband installation date, but in the end to no avail.

All the while, I was astonished at how little thought BT had given to keeping me informed as a customer during this process. I was verbally given an order number which I could use to check the status online, but BT sent me nothing by email or snailmail (not even a confirmation of the order number). Nobody contacted me by phone or email to let me know the promised installation dates were not going to be honored. And although I have a working phone line, I still have no idea on what terms the service is being provided and what extras are available. I suppose in that respect, the traditions of the old-style utilities of unresponsive, soulless customer service survive intact (in which case what was the point of privatisation?).

A few years ago, BT ran an ad campaign celebrating the millions of customers it claimed at the time were 'coming back to BT'. I'm a returning customer, in that I had been using the cable provider Virgin Media at my previous address and decided to give BT a try this time. The company has failed miserably at making me feel welcome and I'm sorely tempted to just call up Virgin instead, knowing that they'll put in a line within days. But now I'm off to Dreamforce so I have run out of energy to chase it up any more until I return in September. The broadband is promised to be in by then. It better had be, is all I can say.