The blood-pressure readings hit a local high this morning, and no wonder- in the minutes directly before they were taken I listened with mounting outrage to an interview with Gavin Richardson, the chief executive of British Telecom, who was on the radio to defend the indefensible performance of the BT subsidiary known as OpenBreach. For my millions of adoring readers overseas I should say that BT used to be the monopoly provider of telephone services in the UK, and still owns most of the network of cables that connects the long-suffering Briton to the Internet. In a misguided attempt to loosen BT’s stranglehold on the broadband market the UK government ordered the lumbering company to set-up a standalone subsidiary which would own the network and offer it on equal terms to the rest of BT and any other would-be provider of telecoms services. Quite what difference the government officials thought this would make- other than introducing extra layers of bureaucracy and a £3bn bill for decorating all the BT engineers’ vans, uniforms and equipment with a new OpenBreach logo- I cannot even begin to speculate. OpenBreach continues to be a monopoly, shielded from the revitalising pressures of competition. That it provides the same shambolic and over-priced service on an equal handed basis to the rest of BT and all the other fleeced ISPs does nothing to help the people who count, namely the customers who pay the world’s highest price per megabit per second, and who receive services as reliable and prompt as the slowest slow boats to China in a particularly breezy typhoon season.
According to Richardson- the world’s greatest champion for mediocrity- we should be congratulating BT for having connected 90% of the UK to broadband. Hah (laughs derisively). I suppose we should just be glad that Richardson’s benchmark for excellent performance is not adopted by other providers of services to the public, or 10% of us would be without television, radio, electricity, the post, access to roads, and so on.As for his claim that the remaining 10% of the UK is ‘hard to reach’… hah (second laugh of even deeper derision). I was experimenting with phonon recoil signalling in twisted pair copper as long ago as ’83, and even then 16Mbs was considered a routine achievement in the lab’. And that was in the days of floppy disks, mind. Your OpenBreach engineer will tell you, while he stirs the cup of tea you’ve given him and pads out the duration of his visit at your expense, that the wires to your house have a floating earth, that there’s potential leakage at the insulators on the pole down the street, that birds feet have ‘pinched’ the conductors, that there are over-tight radii of curvature in the ducts entering the exchange, and that all that explains why it takes you four hours to download last night’s Coronation Street on the catch-up service. As if.
The ultimate blame lies with ‘Offcom’, the so-called ‘regulator’ of the UK telecommunications market. I met one of the non-executive members of the Offcom board at Davos last week, and what a story that told. Your man has ‘a background in retail’, an MBA, a list of other non-exec positions as long as your last phone bill, and absolutely no knowledge whatsoever about telecommunications. Glazed eyes and hunched shoulders were the unwavering responses to my observations on quantum bipole multiplexing, heuristic video compression, abelian latency reduction strategies, ‘inductive’ manhole lids and a dozen other basic ideas that should be bread and butter to a broadband man. And there, in a nutshell, you have the root cause of the problem- an industry whose effectiveness depends fundamentally on specialised technical matters is run by generalists who have not the first understanding of the factors that determine the success or failure of their mission. The more I think about it the more ridiculous it all becomes.