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17 December 2001

Only connect . . .

Broadband sounds like a time-saver for internet users. Until you try to get it. By Jackie Ashley

By Jackie Ashley

Like many of my generation (um, over 40, since you ask), I am dead proud of having mastered e-mailing and finding things out on the internet. I won’t call it surfing or browsing, because these words convey a sense of fluency and ease, which are entirely lacking when I go near a computer. Checking my e-mail is a slow and plodding process, accompanied by squeaks, moans and growls – some from the computer, some from me, as we “boot up”.

So I have been interested for some time in the idea of “broadband” internet connection, avidly reading announcements from the government that the UK will have “the most extensive and competitive broadband market in the G7 by 2005”. Broadband promises instant internet connection, and downloading that’s ten times faster than via a standard modem. At the moment, the UK languishes in last place among the G7 countries for broadband connections, but at least we have ambition. Yes, yes, I thought, reading the report from the government’s advisory group on broadband: the service is essential because, at present, “one-third of user time online is spent waiting, reducing the convenience and ease of e-commerce”. Reducing the ease of e-anything, I’d say.

So let’s get on with instant internet connection. With some enthusiasm, I picked up a leaflet dropped through my door from the “Internet Highway Authority”, whoever they may be, promising Blueyonder Broadband Internet Access with half-price installation. The offer – of “exceptional performance at exceptional price” – came from Telewest, not BT. This was a good thing. As the New Statesman‘s own Robert Peston wrote a couple of weeks ago: “When BT has at last climbed aboard a bandwagon, you can be sure the band is not broad and that the wagon has stalled.”

BT is indeed the main provider of the new, super-fast broadband internet service in this country, but the cable TV company Telewest offers an alternative. So, thanks to its enthusiastic sales pitch, it was to Telewest I went. I was promised a quick (no more than two hours) installation service. It would be some time on a Monday morning, but they couldn’t tell me when. From 8am I waited in. The man came and he cabled. But he didn’t connect me. That was going to have to wait for some more men who would arrive later in the day. I waited. By 4.30pm, I tried to telephone Telewest. Eventually I reached an operator, who told me that he couldn’t connect me to the service department for at least 50 minutes. If I could phone back during the lunch hour the next day, it might be quicker. I waited, but was repeatedly cut off after 20 minutes. Later that night, I was finally put through . . . only to be told that they had closed for the evening. I spent much of the next 48 hours “holding” on the phone for the service department, or “waiting” for more cable men. One lot came on Tuesday and . . . they couldn’t connect me. It needed the “cable digging team”.

In despair, I phoned the press office. I was a journalist and interested to know what the problems with broadband connection were. I was promised both “cable digging men” and “cable connection men” before midday the next day. By 3pm, both sets of men had belatedly come and gone. And . . . I was still not connected. None of the “cable men” (who, incidentally, always seemed to travel in threes) could begin to connect me, broadbandedly, to the internet.

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After three days confined to the house, waiting for cable men who were always late, I gave up. Two days later, after I’d demanded a chat with the chief executive, a manager from Telewest arrived – the fifth attempt to connect us – and, finally, he did.

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It was not all over, though. I had been told by Telewest at the outset (during the enthusiastic sales pitch) that the three computers in our household (two journalists and three school-age, internet-using children) could be networked together, so that we could all use the broadband connection. Only when Telewest arrived – indeed, on each occasion that someone from Telewest arrived – did it emerge that Telewest would not “do” networking. That was up to me to sort out. I phoned several local computer experts. None of them could work it out, either.

Right now, several weeks on, hundreds of pounds poorer, and having wasted several busy days, my son is connected to broadband. The rest of us are not. We are still waiting. Waiting for what, I don’t know, because no one in this hi-tech, computer-literate society I am told we live in knows how to sort out my networking connection problems. Telewest says it is sorry: I was particularly unlucky. But Colin Barker, editor of Computing magazine, condemned Britain’s performance in the broadband market: “Time is running out, and the UK is dropping to the bottom of the broadband class.”

Does it matter? Oh yes. Broadband is to the older internet connections what digital radios are to crystal wireless sets, or what today’s Japanese cars are to the first production-line Austins. What is holding Britain back is not a lack of native intelligence or will or even government help. It is that we are utterly incompetent as a nation at anything manual or technical. We have lost our trades-trained, capable, well-managed army of doers, the screwers-in, the diggers-up, the layers-out and the time-keepers. Back in glittering glass headquarters, chief executives and their hired visionaries blah on about the digital revolution. So, too, do government ministers. But in the real world, that means blokes in overalls with white vans getting round to your street and doing things to pavements, cables and plastic connecting devices, at a time and with a reliability that makes the customer happy – precisely the bit that we British can’t do. Broadband bandwagon? Three-wheeled bloody bandwagon, I say.