Jane Wakefield: Take me back to the good old days of BT

A tired speech by a beleaguered chairman and the egg that cracked

Imagine the scene -- a village buried deep in England where old ladies cycle to church on Sunday, where the children are rosy cheeked and the postmaster is a jolly rotund old fellow.

This Enid Blyton land, beloved of ex-PM John Major, is also the place Sir Iain Vallance , chairman of BT longs to be. Back in the good old days of the GPO (General Post Office -- erstwhile owners of BT) -- before the nasty Internet came along to confuse things for the doddering huge telco.

It seems a strange place for the head of a modern telecommunications company to want to be. And yet the days when operators with BBC accents told people to "hold while I try and connect you" seems a be a whole lot more attractive to Vallance than the possibility of the Internet and 21st century communication tools.

Just when it seemed BT could not get more patronising and out of touch, along comes another chairman to play into the critics' hands. When Peter Bonfield made his let them eat cake remark -- advising those who couldn't afford Internet access at home to get down to their local schools -- Net fans across the country were outraged. Vallance, obviously jealous at Bonfield's ability to alienate a nation, decided to go one step farther. In front of delegates at the Telecommunications Managers Association Conference in Brighton he metaphorically patted our heads and told us not to concern ourselves with things we could not possibly understand.

He described BT as the lollipop man charged with calming down the over-exuberant children trying to cross the busy highway of cyberspace. If the Internet is a high speed train, the vision of BT conjured up by Vallance reminds me more of Thomas the tank engine. Worse still he complained that the telco which was doshing out cash to other operators and ISPs left right and centre, holding it back from making even more profits by the antiquated machinery of Oftel regulation. It was a rousing endorsement of the free market economy but I didn't see too many bleeding hearts or hear too many violins among the audience. Finally he accused his critics of being "very eighties" in their determination to push BT into a pre-privatisation agenda -- and provide universal, cheap Internet access.

Personally I think it is BT that is stuck in the eighties -- like Thatcher's City boys, it is obsessed with making money. In the eighties the Internet was just a twinkle in a MIT professor's eye and telecoms was still king.

Perhaps it is eighties nostalgia that made BT use the world's favourite alien, ET as its TV mascot. I always found it a strangly outdated image -- ET must be grown-up by now or maybe even dead. I suggest both ET and BT need an immediate millennium make-over -- get Carol Smiley on the phone immediately.

Vallance regards the Internet as an annoying grandchild, jumping up and down and demanding attention just when he thought he could retire with his pipe and slippers and doze away the afternoons in his leather armchair. We, the children of the Internet, think we know better than the wise old telco but we are wrong.

We are all buying into the Tony Blair knowledge-based IT society but knowledge is not as important as experience and IT will never be as reliable as telecommunications, Vallance gently reminded us. It is BT's job to hold us back because we have been blinded by dotcoms and have ceased to understand the issues.

It was a tired speech, delivered by a man fed up to the back teeth of people criticising his company and even more fed up of the technology beating an inexorable path to his door. But while his speech may have been tired, the speed with which Vallance left the room after he made it would have given Linford Christie a run for his money. Like a child poking its tongue out behind the back of an adult, Vallance did not hang around to answer the difficult questions which would have followed his tirade.

Those questions have not gone away. Why did BT introduce a supposed radical tariff that ISPs have universally slated? Why is it dragging its heels on offering a genuine unmetered alternative to Net charges? Why does it move slower than a tortoise on Valium in its rollout of ADSL? BT can continue to defend itself all it wants and then run away but it may find that it can run but it can't hide.

In his speech Vallance described the Internet as "not fit for purpose" and the bank managers resisting the advance of e-commerce would probably agree with him. They will be delighted to hear that online banking suffered a setback this week as the man from the Pru found himself with egg on his face.

Prudential-owned online bank Egg was caught on the hop as an astonished customer found himself staring at the account details of a perfect stranger when he logged on to his online account. It is the second incident in so many weeks -- Halifax had a similar experience last week when one of its share accounts became less than private.

I think it would be wrong to make too much of a fuss about it. Mistakes will happen and everyone has pre-Net tales of someone who accessed their account to find £6m had erroneously been credited to them or received Mrs Miggins account receipt instead of their own. Like the wrongly-sent holiday snaps, it is an embarrassing mistake but I tend to believe the banks when they claim these incidents are very rare.

Fraud will exist on the Net as elsewhere and someone, somewhere will pull off the cyber equivalent of the Great Train Robbery and it will make the headlines. But it doesn't necessarily mean the Net is any less safe than the real world.

Besides someone has to stick up for the Internet -- and BT's chairman is certainly not volunteering for the role.

What do you think? Tell the Mailroom . And read what others have said.