Broadband is not a utility - and it never will be.
Those words stick in my mind - and my craw - over ten years since they were uttered blandly by a BT call center operative. The trigger for this pronouncement, laid down like tablets of stone cast from atop London’s BT Tower, was that I had just moved house. On moving, I picked up my phone and painlessly shifted the existing electricity, gas and water accounts into my name.
But when it came to broadband, that wasn’t going to be so easy. There was an existing broadband connection in the new property and it was owned by BT and I was an existing BT customer at my old address, so they knew who I was and had been taking money from me for years. I wasn’t planning to oust the incumbent provider. All I wanted was for the existing account to be shut down and for the service provision to be passed over into my name.
Oh no, if only it were that easy, sir, oh dearie me, no. No, what had to happen was the connection had to be shut off, then re-activated some two to three weeks later in my name. In the meantime, if I wanted to ride the Information Superhighway, I’d have to head for the local Starbucks and use their connection while becoming overly-caffeinated in the process.
Once BT did grant me the privilege of being connected up, the next surprise was how appalling the service was. Today when you look at estate agent websites, the broadband speed is listed as part of the sales pitch, along with proximity to schools, train stations and supermarkets. Flash back over a decade and that wasn’t something that was really promoted. There was a connection and it worked, was the basic information I had.
True, it worked - at the giddying speed of around 5 Mbps download. Even ten years ago that was dreadful. And just for context, I wasn’t moving into a rural idyll in the middle of nowhere. The new property was right at the heart of Brighton, at the time beginning to pitch itself optimistically as a digital hotspot.
So began the best part of ten years of fruitless pursuit of speed enhancement options.
I watched on as the local neighbourhood was cabled up, right down the street until it was about 20 yards away from our block’s front door. Virgin Media vans full of people digging up the sidewalk became a regular sight, vying with their BT Openreach counterparts for the few viable parking slots to be found. Each set of vehicles promised a nirvana of super-fast connections, a temptation not supported by the sales teams from each company when contact was made to try and sign up.
A residential property with over 40 occupants, the majority of whom, even then, were working from home, in the city center of a ‘digital economy’ urban conurbation, but BT and Virgin et al didn’t want to know. There were no plans to install fiber, insisted BT, not now and not in the future. Virgin echoed the statement, while happily laying down fiber to commercial premises nearby, presumably on lucrative private network mark-ups?
For the past few years, I struggled by with a tariff offered by Sky which used the existing BT copper wire infrastructure into the premises, but managed to promise a guaranteed 7 Mbps - which to be fair, they did deliver for a couple of days before it predictably collapsed back to 5 - with the ultimate expectation that, with a very fair wind behind us, we might be within touching distance of 10 Mbps. (We never ever were and believe me, Brighton seafront is very windy!)
Hope emerged when a commercial unit at street level below us was converted into an office and wired up with super-dooper-super-fast networking. And, hallelujah, Virgin Media was providing a bunch of the connection tech. Fiber had entered the building, albeit at ground level. But there was now Virgin Media super-fast internet inside our block.
Except there wasn’t. Or let me rephrase that, there was - the IT team at the office development confirmed that much, even if the evidence of our own eyes as the Virgin team wired up the office space and took up our parking slots wasn’t enough.
But when I called Virgin up to ask about extending the connection through the rest of the building, the result was a Kafka-esque dialog whereby the company rep spent her time claiming that Virgin knew nothing of our building and did not service that postcode anyway. Even when sent photographs of Virgin engineers at work, she insisted that there was no Virgin tech in our area.
Meanwhile our broadband speed fell back to 3 Mbps as the pandemic locked everyone in their homes and onto the internet just to conduct their lives. Broadband was now very much a utility, despite the smug indifference of BT all those years earlier. (A call to BT incidentally merely affirmed that the worldview hadn’t really changed and that there were still no plans to upgrade our dying copper wire tumbleweed.)
But suddenly things changed. In one afternoon, we went from 3 Mbps to 300 Mbps - and it was through bypassing the monopolistic grip of Openreach and the indifference of ‘challenger’ brands like Virgin and Sky that this was achieved. Our solution came in the form of a company called Fair Fibre, pitched as “Broadband that’s honest and right up your street”. Now, I’ll confess up front that my immediate reaction was cynicism. We’d explored a satellite receiver on the roof a few years earlier, but the cost had been hideously prohibitive. This offering looked economically viable, but was it the solution at last?
The website had one hugely promising statement in its FAQ where the question was whether there was any dependency on BT infrastructure:
Absolutely not! We are using our own 1Gbps fibre connection direct from the exchange, bypassing the decrepit phone and coaxial lines used by other ISPs. We use wireless P2P (point to point) linkups from our private fibre connection to distribute to your home.
Basically this involved the placing of an aerial pole on the building roof, then cabling running down through the interior and into each flat where a neat, small cube provided the wifi. It was worth exploring. Fair Fibre’s team came and did a recce, clambering out onto our very high roof to find the right aerial position. That was all good to go. A couple of weeks later they came back, did the full installation, plugged in the cubes and talked us through the set-up.
And suddenly we were in the fast lane of the Information Superhighway, a decade or so late, but finally the empty rhetoric of Broadband Britain, parroted by government after government for so long, had some meaning.
It’s been over two weeks now since we had the installation done and the performance has been excellent and consistent. There was one outage - triggered by a third party provider, I gather - that was resolved in just over half an hour and was followed up immediately with an apology and an explanation via email to all clients. If that had been BT, I’d still be hanging on the phone trying to get through to someone who wouldn’t be able to help me anyway.
So begone BT, Sky and Virgin! This has been a BT-free household for several years anyway - landline, what's that? - and yesterday I took the final step of cancelling the Sky broadband service, which I’d held onto as back-up for a couple of weeks. I’m awaiting the inevitable flood of emails and marketing calls trying to woo me back, but to be fair, the Sky rep - once I finally got someone to pick up the phone after 55 minutes on hold! - did cave in as soon as I said, ‘three became 300 in the space of one day’.
As I said above, COVID and the subsequent shift of life online has emphasized that broadband most definitely is a utility. It’s been a lifeline to so many of us. In the UK, super-fast broadband rollout has been a bad joke for years. Prior to becoming a disgraced Health Secretary, Matt Hancock was a disgraceful Digital Secretary, in which role he trotted out headline-friendly blandishments about everyone getting guaranteed online speeds and announced - and re-announced and re-announced - a pot of money to make this happen, but to little effect.
I’d like to think the pandemic might provide the rocket needed to change the complacent attitude towards the major providers that still emanates out from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, but I rather doubt it. For those who are digitally disadvantaged, looking outside of the box for alternative suppliers will remain a necessity. Our building has struck lucky - and regular readers will know that I’m not one for shameless plugs! For Digital Britain to be a genuine reality though, we need more than luck!