Super annoyed, super frustrated

Friday 25th August 2017

There was a housing crisis in the nineteen seventies. Everything was nearly as unaffordable in London as it is today. But, what we could do then was to scrape all we had together and buy the worst house in the best place we could afford. And they were all truly awful.

We’d then do it up, sell it and climb onto the next rung of the property ladder.

But one of the things that was more difficult to sort out than the endless replastering, damp-proofing and wallpapering was the installation of the most essential bit of household kit…the fixed-line telephone.

The handset and the service were provided by something called the GPO or to give it its full title, the General Post Office. Trouble was that this bloated, inefficient, state-owned institution didn’t have enough equipment to cope with the demand of aspirational Londoners.

Journalists like me needed to make telephone calls to the office, contacts and even phone in copy to the news desk. How quaint this must seem now with 95% current smartphone ownership. So, what to do? Average waiting times were three months for a line and a telephone number.

Of course, demand had the usual market effect – and it spawned a new urban phenomenon – the ‘accommodating’ GPO telephone engineer. He became part of our society’s must haves. A name to be passed around among friends like the nice bloke who fixes computers.

A good place to find one was in the pub.  Possibly a few fivers would change hands…and then, in a matter of days, you had your essential connection to the outside world…without the GPO itself getting its hands dirty.

So, all good now, forty years on?

No.  An era and a privatisation later and I get a flyer through the letterbox proclaiming that BT are providing Superfast broadband and the box is right outside my house. Would I care to subscribe?

I live in a country village.  But we are 10 minutes away from a large town with a fast connection to London.  We do have electricity and running water.   But no street lights (our village’s choice), no mains drainage, no mains gas and really hopeless broadband (certainly not our choices).   So, it was with huge joy that we said “YES” to the new high-speed service.  At last, we’d moved into the 21st century.

BT delivered the new router and I set up a new standing order.  Then nothing.  Many phone calls later and a complete deterioration of our existing ‘steam-driven’ broadband slowing down to dial-up (remember that?) speed….it turns out that the shiny new BT has the same problem as the 20th Century GPO.  Not enough equipment to cope with the demand.

As luck would have it, I bumped into a BT engineer outside my gate – trying to sort out the neighbours, who it turns out had ordered Superfast a few weeks ago and he was trying to connect them.  When I told him how exasperating it all was he gave me this advice: “When you eventually get the fast broadband and then you then decide to go to another provider like Virgin, don’t.  BT will take it away from you and the connection will be passed down to the next customer waiting in line”.

So, there it is. It’s all come back full circle. The supply will be overtaken by demand and it’ll be back to the traditional impasse. Unless of course you want to speak to a friendly engineer…


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