Ross Clark

Crossed wires

Too often, privatised utilities offer confusion without true choice

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Chris Huhne wants to know why we don’t shop around more for our utilities. I’ll give him one reason. The liberalisation of utility markets has created an impression of bewildering choice, but when things go wrong you realise that there is no choice at all, just the same old creaking infrastructure, owned and operated by the legacy company of an old nationalised monopoly. In fact, in one sense, liberalisation has made things worse: with a multiplicity of companies involved, you are never quite sure who is responsible for your pipes or your wires. You can find yourself caught between two companies, each blaming the other for your problem, via the inevitable call centres in Bangalore.

I am writing this while squatting on other people’s computers. It is nearly two weeks since the internet connection in my home failed. I immediately reported the problem to my internet service provider, AOL — originally America Online but in Britain now owned by TalkTalk. I was put through to an Asian call centre. After offering me the usual most humble apologies the operator had me turn my router on and off, change the wires around and alter the settings, before telling me to try again in the morning. I did — and spent another half hour on the phone. This time, while still insisting there was nothing wrong with its server or the line to my house, AOL agreed to send an engineer because there must be something wrong with my computer.

When he came two days later he plugged his own router into my phone socket and declared that the problem was with the line leading to my house. However, he couldn’t do anything because the wiring was owned by BT, and only BT was allowed to touch it. But my case was now going into the ‘escalation procedure’, which meant that between the two of them AOL and BT would fix my line within 48 hours.

The time came and went, and still I had no broadband connection. I rang AOL again, and this time was told that sorry, AOL hadn’t been able to find anything wrong at their end, so I would have to contact BT myself. I did, and after another protracted tour of the world’s call centres was told that I was calling the wrong part of BT. This was BT’s retail arm. What I needed was BT’s wholesale arm, OpenReach, because it is they who own the wires. I couldn’t be put through because under the rules of BT’s privatisation the different arms operated as two different companies. In fact, I couldn’t contact OpenReach at all; only AOL could. Remarkably for a telecommunications company, OpenReach does not appear even to have a telephone number — or at least one listed on its website. So I contacted AOL again and ordered them to sort it out, only to be told that sorry, they couldn’t do that. The trouble was that AOL was only responsible for my broadband service, and my phone line was also showing up with an ‘open fault’. They couldn’t even report the broadband problem to BT until the telephone fault had been sorted out. There is no fault with my telephone, I protested: I’m talking to you on it. But of course call centre operators are incapable of working to anything other than the script on the screen before them.

I eventually established — after two hours of calls — that BT had an ‘open fault’ registered against my line from a problem several months ago. I had to ask this to be lifted before AOL reported the broadband fault. It wasn’t for another four days that a BT man was finally lined up to come round to my house. Why it took so long I have no idea. OpenReach is bound by Ofcom rules to give all phone and internet providers a service as good as that it offers BT customers. But whoever was at fault, four days without internet seems a lifetime now that we are all strongly encouraged to do our banking, pay our utility bills and book our tickets online.

When the OpenReach man came, he spent a few minutes poking around before telling me there was nothing wrong with my broadband at all — he was getting a perfectly good signal. The problem was probably with my router. In other words, after ten days and over four hours of telephone calls I was back at step one: I would have to ring AOL and ask for a new router. The only problem is that when I did the AOL operator told me the system was down so she couldn’t order one — perhaps I would like to ring again tomorrow.

An AOL man is supposed to be coming back tomorrow, this time with a router. But I will believe it when I see it. I would dearly love to dump both AOL and BT, but I can’t. In many areas, BT still has a monopoly on the physical manifestation of our telephone lines. It is the same for gas and electricity. You can shop around as much as you like for a better tariff and it is fine — until the gas is cut off or the lights go out. Switch providers and you’ve got exactly the same gas and electricity coming through the same pipes and wires. In the case of gas pipes this is most likely to be National Grid, a company which most people associate with the electricity supply, given that it was carved out of the company created at the time of privatisation to maintain the electrical grid. But then again it might be one of half a dozen other independent gas transporters.

In the case of the electricity wires leading into your home, these are most likely still owned by a company derived from the electricity board which preceded privatisation in your area — which is quite likely to be the company you thought you had dumped the other week when shopping online for a cheaper tariff.

I am certainly not pining for the nationalised utilities of the 1970s when, by all accounts, it used to take weeks to get a phone installed. But all the same I would love it if there was one company which would take responsibility for my phone line rather than my having to phone around East Asia for a fortnight, and that I could change that company as I wished. I would gladly swap the false choice offered by a multiplicity of providers for two wires leading to my home, each truly independent from each other.