Convergence can be a marriage of inconvenience

Government touts convergence as the wave of the future, but user experience finds things are slightly more complicated

HomeChoice, the television-on-demand service that runs on British Telecommunications' (quote: BT) high-speed data lines, has been cited as a prime example of convergence in the media and communications industries. But as users' experiences show the marriage of different kinds of businesses is not always a happy one.

The government has just announced its intention to create a "converged" communications regulator, Ofcom, which will bring the worlds of media and telecommunications under one roof. But user experiences and industry analysts question whether convergence is all it's cracked up to be.

BT's rollout of ADSL has hit a number of technical snags, but purchasing the service as part of a media package can add more difficulties, as the two parts of the business do not always seem to know what the other is doing. "[HomeChoice] need to get their act together with the telcos, but it's the BT people who are making it difficult for them to provide their service," says Kelly Moss, a HomeChoice subscriber who has tried since early November to iron the bugs out of her system. "So the question is, who do we blame here?"

Most of Moss' problems will be familiar to those who have attempted to install ADSL, a broadband technology that runs over ordinary telephone lines, for their home or small office PCs. She has had six visits from BT technicians, including three which required her to take a day off work, and the line still cuts out during periods of heavy telephone usage.

Since ADSL was introduced earlier this year BT has struggled to connect the 100,000 users who have signed up to be hooked up. The telco has lowered its targets several times because of technical problems and issued an apology about the bungled rollout. The problems have been borne out by plenty of complaints from ZDNet readers.

HomeChoice has had technical difficulties of its own, however, according to Moss and other customers. It has suffered several server crashes, one of which rendered the service inaccessible for several hours during prime time, Moss said. HomeChoice streams television programming and films in a digital MPEG2 format and, like an Internet service provider, relies on servers to make the content available. Moss also found her HomeChoice set-top box occasionally fails to boot up, a problem the company has so far been unable to solve.

There have also been problems due to the fact that customers in effect buy two services -- BT's ADSL and video on demand -- through one company. HomeChoice originally told Moss if she cancelled her service she would not receive a refund, even though the service had never worked properly. Moss was told HomeChoice did not need to issue a refund, since the company's own service had been working properly -- the problems were on BT's end. (After Moss threatened to sue, the company agreed to a refund.)

Geoff Einon, a freelance writer who signed up with HomeChoice while it was in its trial period a year ago, has also found it confusing to deal with the converged service. He primarily uses HomeChoice to connect his PC to the Internet, but has experienced outages and has found that when running the new Windows 2000 operating system certain Web addresses are mysteriously unavailable. He deals entirely with HomeChoice's technical support, but it is not clear whether the problems lie with HomeChoice's service or BT's infrastructure.

Despite the difficulties both Moss and Einon find HomeChoice an attractive package. "The HomeChoice service will be brilliant, if they can get it off the ground. It's really cutting edge technology," says Moss, an engineer herself, who formerly worked at a telco. "The problem is whether they can implement it."

A HomeChoice spokesman acknowledged its customers have suffered outages because of BT's network. "We are working very closely with BT to put in place additional processes to enhance the installation procedure for HomeChoice," he said. "We will keep customers closely informed about progress of their individual installations."

Industry analysts say problems are inevitable when companies attempt to bring different kinds of services under one roof. "This is the traditional problem for businesses using data communications," says Tim Johnson, analyst with Ovum. "What's happening now is that suddenly domestic users are getting into the sort of data networking world which was formerly a business concern."

Any company reselling BT's ADSL would face similar difficulties, Johnson points out.

Bringing together the regulation of areas as different as telecommunications and media may create more problems than it fixes, Johnson says. "Inevitably, it is the nature of individual personalities to face one way or another. Depending on who the bosses are... they may pay attention to content and not infrastructure, or the other way around," he says. "In 10 years I predict they could be split up again."

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