Here in The Shed, we admire British Telecom and wish it well. But we do so a bit like Boris Johnson saluting David Cameron – having just signed a contract with someone else for a year or two at least.
The Shed has bought Demon internet services for some time, because you could always ring them up and find a canny fella who could put you onto just the person you need, and when they were absorbed into a bigger organisation, they were allowed to continue this eccentric service to their remaining loyalists. It cost about £25 a month but it came to look like increasingly good value as all the comms companies erected walls of idiot proofing around themselves, policed by digital quizmasters who kept you going round in circles til you got fed up trying to get through to a human being.
BT used to be a bit different. BT engineers and technicians built the original networks, came up with the brilliant transitional technology known as ADSL, which allowed reasonable everyday broadband over the old phone lines, and are now offering us connection to a new fibre node a couple of hundred yards away, in a village of two thousand on the edge of Dartmoor. BT always had and still has the best of British in it. The trouble is finding it.
For several years now, it has epitomised the worst of New Britain in its public relations. It is brilliant at talking fanny and hopeless at listening. You couldn’t get through to an engineer if your life depended on it – even a switchboard operator is now more or less out of the question – but every time you ask, six people in a row will call you from the other side of the world to say the director general himself will be popping round if you will only sign up for OpenReach this minute and have you heard about their sports package?
We might have gone for it it. But first we wanted to be sure we had a stable connection. Ours dropped all the time to start with, but fair enough, the wiring in the house needed checking and the mainframe computer was an old laptop which switched itself on and off for fun sometimes. We traded it in for a new desktop PC and cut out some redundant wire around the house.
Demon still identified a bit of noise down the line and we went into the troubleshooting sequence which is designed to convince you it is your fault. We found a master socket, in an awkward corner, and plugged into it whichways and blew down the line and dialled test codes. In the end, the Demon lads were reduced to suggesting what would have amounted to a floorboards-up rewire to take out about ten feet of ADSL wire which trails across our office floor. Meanwhile, Shed malcontents were pointing out that after the BT cable went out the window, it went into a 20-year-old junction box with a spur to next door, full of cobwebs and open to the elements, and then disappeared into a water-filled pipe taking it across the road and onwards.
It has been observed on the smoking terrace down the pub that you might as well be connected with a piece of wet string. But the chances of getting anyone at BT to pay attention to the details of the whole idea are nil. They have got millions to spend on fibre but nothing for the end bits. The Shed hoovered out the external junction box and peered helplessly at the tangle of wires inside.
Eventually, having done several more circuits of the BT online help system, in a fruitless search for a phone number which worked, The Shed lodged a complaint about the service, on the grounds that it was impossible to get its questions about cabinet-to-desk connections even put through to the right department.
One day we got a phone call from a bright young chap who understood exactly what we were saying and could tell us with authority that there was nothing he could do or organise, even for a fee. He did point out that if we ordered a new phone line, for £130, that would include a new wire into the house from the outside junction, taken inside by whatever route we wanted, and an engineer would turn up to do it. Actually, not a bad deal, we thought. But our informant also mentioned, off the record, that if you Googled “ex-BT”, you would find a number of good lads who could get away with having a bit of a tinker with your home connections – once a jealously guarded BT monopoly. We found a handy fella in Plymouth who talked sense and spent a couple of hours circuit testing. He also split off the telephone circuit from the main ADSL link, as a precaution against the domestic interference the helplines all want you to check for. With that, there was no real need for microfilters any more, he reckoned. The helplines are obsessed with fitting microfilters. He said the cable across the Shed’s office floor was nothing. There was a little noise down the line but not enough to get BT to look at it. Problem could be anywhere between here and Yelverton. Go for fibre and at least you would cut down on the number of old connections.
For value and for customer service, he recommended PlusNet. We settled on £80 for his time and expertise.
OK, fibre. We tried Demon again first but they had to refer us to big brother Vodafone, who could not fix it for our postcode. PlusNet could, and they would throw in a phones contract which meant we ended up paying less than we were paying Demon and BT before. Also, if you needed to talk to them, you talked to Leeds or Sheffield.
At this point we still had a place in our hearts for BT. The Shed tried to call the guy who put us on to the guy from Plymouth. If a sale would do him any good, he might persuade us. We pressed 1 and then 2 and then 4 and listened for 10 minutes to a recorded message assuring us everyone was unusually busy as usual. Then, amazingly, got through. Was our man there? Never heard of him. Could somebody call us back?
By the time somebody did, our internet connection was a nightmare, costing a couple of hours a day in reboot time. We had, however, had rainstorms, gales and a big freeze. We asked if there was any chance weather was causing our problems. The BT rep could not say. He wondered if we knew about their Sport package.
The Shed rang PlusNet and signed a deal. The computer got worse and was eventually diagnosed as needing a new hard drive, which took everything back to normal. Wasn’t BT’s fault at all, in other words. If we had ever talked to anyone there twice, we’d apologise.
Meanwhile, BT has picked up a wooden spoon for Worst Customer Service from the Daily Mail and is transferring some of its call-centre work back to Britain. That might help. But a few more men in overalls back on the doorsteps – or even available by telephone or email – would do them a lot more good.
* PS: The Shed notes a letter a Mr Michael Mullaney wrote to Computeractive mag 3-16.2.16 to say:
“I now correspond with BT using old-fashioned snail mail (BT Correspondence Centre, Providence Row, Durham, DH98 1BT). When they contact you by telephone, you at least get an operator that speaks good English. That doesn’t mean they can resolve the problem, but at least you can understand when they are insulting your intelligence.”