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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Breaking Band: Building a Better Internet Infrastructure

If you follow me on social media, you will know that my broadband is down. It has been since the storms on Saturday.

I have no problem with my service going down. We’re going to have to get used to crazy weather over the next few years, and this lightning storm was like nothing else I have experienced in the UK. Lightning hit something, or water got somewhere it shouldn’t and things went down.

(Sh)It happens.

The problem is what happens next. Four days of wrangling with poor information, idiotic ‘customer service’ scripts, and under-equipped call centre staff insisting the problem is with my third-party router (only installed because the supplied one was utterly unreliable). Broken promises and repeatedly missed (self-imposed) deadlines. It took a concerted effort on Twitter to make something happen. That something is an engineer who has to come to my house today and work back from there, despite multiple customers in my area being simultaneously taken out (apparently not enough to justify it being called an ‘outage’).

There is no way this is an efficient way to run a business. But based on the chorus of recognition I’ve had across Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, my experience isn’t unusual for BT customers.

The Fourth Utility

Me whining doesn’t make for a great blogpost though and that’s not what this is about (though the scripts of the conversations with some of the call centre staff are pretty amusing). My point is that the internet is the fourth utility and it needs to be treated as such.

In the days when email and the web were the only things carried over the internet, it was annoying but not the end of the world if it went down. After all, for the first few years of consumer internet it was usually down: you had to dial up to get access.

But today the internet carries much more than these intermittent services. Across entertainment, environment and security it has become a platform in its own right on which we are increasingly reliant.

Without the internet I can’t access services that I pay for, like Netflix and Spotify. This adds to the ‘lost value’ of it being down.

My Nest thermostat can’t communicate with the world to find out what weather conditions it should be responding to. And I can’t communicate with it to turn it on and off, potentially reducing my comfort and costing me additional money in gas.

I can’t monitor the cameras covering parts of my property, or get alerts from my home automation system about intruders, floods or fires.

These are all what you might call ‘first world problems’ today, and I know I’m in the minority as a user of all these services. But they will be commonplace before long. And I pay good money for my internet platform to be able to use them.

Connected Age

We are moving to an age of ever-increasing connectivity. Some might decry our reliance on machines and their interconnection and I understand their concerns. I always think about the overweight chair-bound slobs in Disney’s Wall-E, beholden to their robot servants. But history suggests that technological advance usually drives life improvements, and human beings find ways to mitigate the risks they present.

If we are to continue the pace of technological advance, and retain our place as one of the more technologically-advanced nations, then we need to change the way we treat broadband provision. We need to stop looking at it as a luxury and understand it as a utility, and frame policy and provision appropriately.

At the moment there is far too little competition at the right levels of the market. Having most providers beholden to BT’s Openreach infrastructure does not drive innovation. The special deals that the government has with the big providers (BT and Virgin) to discount the tax they pay on their cables prejudices the market against new entrants. Regulation discourages the opening up of access to existing assets to allow the sharing of ducts, poles and other routes by providers, utilities and transport companies.

If my connection goes down in a few years time I would like my provider to know before I do and tell me. I’d like them to start the diagnosis and repair automatically, before I have called and without any human intervention. If I’m unhappy with their service I’d like to know that there are genuine, physical connection alternatives for my service, not just a re-branding of the same pair of wires.

Ofcom has highlighted that our broadband provision is some of the best in Europe. I’d agree with the FSB: it’s not good enough.

Tom Cheesewright