Yesterday I got an email from BT, once again extolling the virtues of BT Infinity* and inviting me to sign up. As I am a BT customer – which is why they had my email – it wouldn’t have been too difficult to check that BT Infinity is not available where I live.
(*For those of you outside the UK, this is (privatised) British Telecom’s optical-fibre based network).
I tweeted about this and “BT Care” got in touch and asked me to “chat” with them. I foolishly wasted my time contacting them for an on-line chat. The short version of the chat was, sorry, but although your local exchange has Infinity optical fibre, and your local DP (Distribution Point) does too, it hasn’t been ‘enabled’ yet and there’s no date for when it will be. Can I escalate this and lobby for a quicker availability – no, I can’t. They have no obligation to provide this service to the whole country and I can get lost (to be fair, they didn’t say ‘get lost’ but that’s what it felt like).
Way back in the early 1980s I was, believe it or not, a telecoms engineer working for British Telecom. I was also Branch Secretary of Westminster Branch of the Post Office Engineers Union (POEU) and heavily engaged with the changes starting to convulse the whole of computing, telecoms and broadcasting industry.
No-one back then foresaw what would happen with the Internet, but one thing was pretty obvious. The main interactive way of getting telecoms into homes and businesses would be an optical fibre network. It was also pretty obvious that the provision of such a network would be a ‘natural monopoly’ – i.e. it would be pretty pointless having more than one cable going into anyone’s home or business. Finally it was also starting to become obvious that the potential for moving all sorts of services onto such a network were immense – apart from voice it could carry broadcast media, commerce, and anything else that could be digitised.
The obvious solution was to have a single national carrier responsible for setting up and maintaining the ‘information superhighway’, which is what it was already starting to be called. And then the traffic over the network could be opened up to competition. BT was about to start making huge savings by jumping from 1st generation telephone switching equipment (Strowger) to 4th generation computerised “System X” exchanges, which would mean it could probably fund such a “wire Britain” project.
Instead of taking this obvious route the Thatcher government decided to privatise BT; allow TV cable companies to dig up roads all over the country so that many homes would end up with both TV and BT cables; and regulate the privatised BT in such a way that it never had the resources or incentives to wire the country with optical fibre.
The result: we are still waiting for optical fibre across much of the country. I live on the edge of the Manchester conurbation, on a reasonably prosperous new-build estate, and we can’t get BT Infinity or even a date when they might make it available. And BT Infinity doesn’t even provide optical fibre to the premises, only as far as you local DP (distribution point). Despite the current hype from BT and the government, we are lagging far behind many other countries in providing a proper information superhighway. How much longer will we have to wait before we have a government prepared to get a grip of this?