We have been on a family holiday to Tangier, Morocco, and of course my mobile phone came too. Not that I was intending to use it much – minimum impulse roaming; I would mostly wait until we had wifi for the purposes of Instagram and the rest of it. And I don’t tend to use the telephone bit at all.
We had been at the villa two days when the barrage began – text after text, email after email, all from O2. I can’t pretend I am someone who can tell one service provider from another, but I know I am ‘with’ O2, and suddenly they were all over me.
‘Hello,’ their texts began. ‘From the way you have been using your phone, it looks like you might be abroad. Call us straight away so we can make sure your phone isn’t lost or stolen. If we don’t hear from you in the next 24 hours, we’ll stop the roaming on your mobile.’ In other words, I would be cut off.
I duly rang the 13-digit number from the terrace and, after the usual interactions with a robot operator, spoke to a helpful lady in South Africa, named Taanu I think. She asked me the usual security questions (‘Who is your favourite musical performer?’ – I can never remember whether, years ago, I chose Joni Mitchell, David Bowie or Bryan Ferry, but luckily called it right) and the courteous Taanu promised all was well, and I would hear no more from O2 during my fortnight’s holiday.
But overnight arrived three more texts, all identical to the first, accompanied by three emails saying the same thing. I heard them pinging on to the iPhone by my bed at dawn. During lunch, four more arrived (two emails, two texts), and then a further six overnight.
I rang Vicky in Cape Town. My favourite performer was still David Bowie. She sounded every bit as helpful as Taanu, but more confident, and she reassured me I had done nothing wrong and the text-fest was over.
Eight more of them arrived the next day. Warren in Cape Town sounded like a cool dude, pretty laid-back but in a good way. A surfer, I would guess. Making a bit of cash to last a month on the beach. He was a fellow Bowie fan. He was also sympathetic. He tried to learn more about my predicament from his superiors while I was on hold, but he couldn’t get through. He thought some bosses were also based in Cape Town, but couldn’t be sure, he had not met any.
A highly encouraging text arrived following our conversation, saying that my enquiry to O2 had been resolved, they hoped to my satisfaction. Then six more texts and two more emails arrived next morning, just as the sun was rising above the medina, informing me I might be abroad, and if I rang the usual number within 24 hours my phone would not be disconnected.
This time, astoundingly, I wasn’t speaking to Cape Town, but to Worcestershire. My own home county! The lady spoke with a slight West Midlands accent. It was actually quite moving, hearing a Droitwich voice on the line, working from home. She was very sorry indeed that I had received more than 30 emails and texts by now (another one pinged while we were speaking) and she wished she knew how to stop them. She wasn’t sure it was technically possible, they were issued automatically by a machine somewhere, she didn’t know where, She had had similar conversations with other customers travelling abroad, but felt there must be a way, and put me on hold to find out. I held and held. Eventually, as I was poised to give up, her friendly voice resurfaced on the line, but at that precise moment we were cut off at her end.
The text pings were now at hourly intervals. A lady on the South African helpdesk named Tharwah, who explained that she didn’t come from Cape Town but had relocated, informed me that they were only the operations helpdesk and had no interaction with O2 at all. I asked her if she happened to know who owned O2, or anyone in management, but she didn’t know, which was understandable.
O2 in fact belongs to Telefonica and Liberty Global as a joint venture, and might well have other telecom sector investors such as Virgin. Its UK headquarters is in Slough and is a genuinely lovely piece of modern architecture, all steel and glass, built by a firm of architects named OAG. OAG ‘designs and delivers iconic and challenging glazing solutions for our clients’, according to its website. It is hard to know who actually runs O2, should one ever wish to complain. The headquarters appears to have no telephone number. A sleek and likeable-looking CEO named Mark Evans was at the helm recently, but has apparently decided ‘to move on to other things’. There is a chairman named Mike Fries, who seems also to be the new CEO, who declares he is committed to building ‘Tomorrow’s Connections Today’. It must be said, he sounds mighty impressive on his resume, and sits on the boards of a quiver-full of telecoms businesses, mainly in Latin America.
We landed back in the UK on Saturday afternoon, and my phone exploded with the pings and dings of four new texts from O2. Two more arrived the next morning. ‘From the way you are using your phone, it looks like you might be abroad…’ No, I am in Worcestershire, the heart of England.
I deleted part of our earlier correspondence, but still have 49 O2 messages sitting on my phone and counting. It feels like existential harassment from an algorithm wrapped in a call centre inside an enigma. It also feels like a company completely out of control. The board of O2, like its chairman, is rammed with wildly competent-sounding individuals with names like Jose Maria Alvarez-Pallete Lopez, Laura Abasolo Garcia de Baquedano, Charlie Bracken and Angel Vila Boix. I am sure if I met them in person I would be awed by their technical and corporate know-how.
But I also take a very big bet. When the board members travel abroad for their family holidays, I bet their own phones avoid an O2 package, and they don’t find themselves dealing with cascades of unstoppable junk messages.