Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

You've only a thin chance of getting broadband on screen.

By Kate Bulkley

The Independent

June 27, 2001

How many calls does it take to get on the great British broadband communications superhighway? Kate Bulkley is still counting...

Four years on from the 1997 Labour Party Election manifesto which pledged 1bn for a Broadband Britain, I figured it was safe to join the communications super highway.

For several years I have struggled to download e-mails at our North London home with a dial-up modem offering the standard 56 kilobits of information a second.

In a bid to speed the home experience, I thought I'd give every provider a fair chance to install our home with broadband, and there were several companies to choose from. This was going to be fun.

I began my broadband odyssey on Wednesday, 6 June. I realise now that Tony Blair didn't mention broadband Britain in his election campaigning this time around. In hindsight, it was an omen.

My first step was to call BTopenworld, the unit of the phone giant that handles broadband, because I thought its system would be the least intrusive. BT's broadband speeds your existing phone line to at least 500 kilobits a second using a technology called DSL, which allows you to make phone calls while you surf the net or answer e-mails, all on the same line. No new cables, no new phones lines, no new holes in the side of my house. Perfect.

The BT people were overjoyed with my choice and were very friendly too. Welcome to life "in the fast lane," they said in their letter. In the spirit of fairness, I then called HomeChoice, an alternative DSL (it stands for digital subscriber line) provider, which in addition to high-speed internet also offered a video-on-demand television service. This would let me watch, among other things, Ainsley Harriot's Barbecue Bible; and with full VCR-functionality so I could replay the complex bits.

Sadly, HomeChoice was not to be. Customer service told me that using my Apple Mac computer was a problem. Home Choice would very much like to support Apple Macs, but didn't right now. Sorry, Ainsley, I tried.

Undeterred, I contacted Direct Connection, my original dial-up internet service provider (ISP). Dircon (for short) also offers a DSL service, but when I talked to the nice man in technical support, he told me Dircon could not support the software of my e-mail provider, AOL. Another one bit the dust.

The last call was to Cable London. At this point in the story I need to take a deep breath. To be fair to Telewest, who own it, they really have tried to improve the service. I'm now on first name terms with Ron, the regional director of operations and Mike, the installation engineer, who visited my home four times in a week. I even have both of these men's much-sought-after mobile phone numbers, but despite all these best efforts, my broadband journey has been bumpy.

The first hurdle was a "way leave problem" on my property. What on earth was that? I asked. Well, any cable coming into a property that has more than one family living in it, needs permission from everyone before work can start. No matter, I thought, I've still got BTopenworld waiting in the wings. A day later and BT was also out of the game. I had failed my "line test", that is, my phone line (owned and maintained by BT) was not up to scratch. It had taken BT a week to discover this. "Sorry", said the form letter, but BT wanted me to know "the BTopenworld broadband team are as disappointed as you are". I doubted this.

So, Telewest it had to be. The first Telewest team showed up 14 June to check the outside cabling. A second duo arrived to throw the cables over the house that afternoon and the install team, led by Mike, came on the appointed time the following Monday to drill the hole in my house, install the cable modem and hook it to my PC.

That's when the trouble started. First, they told me my computer's ethernet port was already in use for my printer, which they had never seen before. So I had to buy an 80 ethernet "hub". Then they didn't like my application software, but, actually, their cable was at fault.

The next morning, the connection did not work. I called customer service, and was told to hang on for 20 minutes. So I called my friend Ron. He fixed it remotely. The next morning Mike showed up. Again the connection did not work. He made calls and got it working. He left. Ten minutes later the connection stopped working. He came back.

After a long week, the connection was working on Friday. Over the weekend I enlisted my friend Toby (who was at our house for a barbeque) to put the final piece into my broadband jigsaw, my AOL e-mail software. The combined brainpower of Telewest and AOL had failed on this, but Toby managed in 30 seconds. Finally, I was charging full pelt down the broadband super highway.

All's well that ends well, right? But on Monday morning I turned on the computer, clicked the browser and nothing. Then I saw a stark "failure to connect" message. That looked familiar. Turned out Telewest's network in my area was suffering temporary "disruptions".

As a consumer, I've stopped caring what the technical faults are. I just want to get on the net without calling Ron every morning. When people like me can stop making calls like that, then we will all live happily ever after in broadband Britain.

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