A quick summary of things wrong with the world: unpleasant never-ending wars, increasing popularity of DIY suicide terrorism, racial hatred, diminishing fossil fuels + increasing greenhouse gases, the spread of AIDS in developing countries, trains that do not stay on the rails. Of course, the list goes on and on. Luckily, the BBC has the perfect antidote if you spend too much time worrying about serious and intractable problems: moaning in an ill-researched way about trivial ones that have already being dealt with. Sometimes I think that is what the UK is best at.
There are few things that motivate me to be positive about the telecoms industry, and even fewer to be positive about telecoms regulators, but the BBC’s populist consumer affairs programme, Watchdog, is one. This programme is aimed at a particular segment of society: people who like to moan about how the problems of society are all the fault of greedy businesses. I guess greedy businesses are the one kind of cartoon villian that the BBC can still go after, leaving the newpapers to focus their ire on single mothers and asylum seekers. And last night, the BBC’s Watchdog team surpassed themselves with their imaginative choice of businesses to go after. Yes, everybody hates a telco, and this year the rise of broadband in the UK means ISPs are now public enemy number 1. The broadband providers have finally succeeded in usurping mobile SPs from their former stranglehold of the “most hated” category. (But do not worry – I predict the mobile SPs will make a strong comeback next year thanks to advertising over mobile internet).
I would put a link to the Watchdog programme so you could see it yourself, but the BBC do not offer Watchdog as a download. How very irritating of them. So here is the link to a boring static page giving the Watchdog “report” on UK broadband ISPs. So what is wrong with it? Where do I begin? (With the second sentence, as it happens…)
Free and misleading advertising from a public service broadcaster
You would think the BBC, being funded by taxpayers, might be careful not to provide advertising. Or at least to get the facts right when they do. Or at least to advertise a few rivals at the same time. But no….
Talk Talk were heavily criticised by the Advertising Standards Agency for marketing their broadband service as “free”. But this Watchdog report repeats the misleading marketing claim that Talk Talk offer a free service as if it is a straightforward fact. If I was Charles Dunstone I would congratulating the BBC on increasing his sales through this shoddy piece of journalism. To make matters worse, the site also reproduces a statement from Talk Talk that repeats the claim that their is no charge for their broadband service.
The Watchdog show also blatantly advertised uswitch.com, a service that makes money from encouraging people to switch providers. But none of the causes of complaint described on the show were problems with the supply of an existing established service. The problems were all caused by switching or trying to switch providers. Uswitch gave an astonishingly simplistic explanation of the cause of problems, by implying it all comes down to ISPs not having the capacity to handle the actual volume of customer interactions. The first thought is how would they know? They are obviously just people sat outside the ISPs who are guessing at what the problems on the inside might be. The second thought is if uswitch was right, how does encouraging more people to switch providers make life better for customers instead of worse? I would give you the link to uswitch.com but (a) you can probably work it out for yourselves and (b) I hit the site to see what they say themselves about the topic, but it is currently unavailable – how impressive is that?
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing
The Watchdog report says that all ISPs get lots of complaints. Erm… and how does this information help anyone? If we knew which ISPs got complaints about what, that might help. But Watchdog either does not know or cannot tell us. In short, the show told nobody anything of use. Apparently all ISPs stink for a variety of reasons. Great, so presumably the only useful advice would be not to get broadband. Tell that to people in developing countries who have to pay extraordinary prices to get unreliable internet access, if it is available. Watchdog will be using the internet (no sense of irony there) to conduct a survey of what people think of their ISPs. The results will be aired on their show on March 14th. Here are a few reasons not to tune in.
There are a hundred gazillion on-line surveys and discussion groups dedicated to broadband ISPs already. Watchdog would have given the average customer far more help by just pointing them at the information out there. The list of impartial resources is long: ADSLguide.com, Broadband Watchdog, the UK Broadband Internet Guide or Broadband.co.uk are just a few. If the show is really interested in consumer protection, why not tell people about this freely available information, much of it generated from existing customers? But perhaps Watchdog had an exclusive advertising deal with uswitch.com…
The Watchdog survey is bound to give reliable unbiased results, of course. I mean, it is a survey of people who watch a weekly consumer affairs programme. No chance of the survey being biased towards people who like to moan, then. Does anyone expect satisfied customers who watched the show to take the trouble to complete the survey? On the other hand, the survey is being conducted over the internet, which might limit the number of people who complain that they currently do not have access to the internet.
Of course, let us not forget what prompted the show. Somebody did a survey. They did a proper survey without bias that cost lots of money to do and where you have to pay lots of money in order to read it. I guess the authors of that survey, Point Topic, will also be grateful for the free advertising by the BBC. If any ISPs had not already bought that survey, I assume they will be buying it today. The free summary of that survey is here. Great research by the BBC there: they just reproduced the main headlines of a survey conducted by someone else. So now the BBC’s Watchdog team needs to do another survey to check if people are unhappy because the first survey said people were unhappy. No duplication of effort there. Good use of taxpayers money.
So just how unhappy were people in the first survey? Well, the headline that generated interest in the BBC was that the percentage of fairly or very satisfied broadband customers in the UK fell from 92% in last year’s survey to 77% in this year’s survey. A much less interesting headline would be the growth in dissatisfied customers, which grew from 5% to 9%. At the same time, the number of households getting broadband grew by 3 million, a 34% increase. So whilst the industry has nothing to boast about with 6% of customers being fairly dissatisfied, and 3% very dissatisfied, it is hardly a crisis either. In the context of growth, the indicators highlight that some providers had teething troubles and difficulty managing growth, and some providers are lousy this year like they were last year. Whilst 9% of customers were dissatisfied, a further 12% were “neither satisfied nor dissatisfied”, which suggests most people are sensible enough to have low expectations of things given to them for free. Another 2% of customers responded that they did not know if they were satisfied or not! How can they not know the answer? Perhaps they signed-up to a free service but have never bothered to use it…
Despite the complete lack of discrimination by Watchdog in portraying all providers as equally bad, the companies that came out worst in the survey were the “free” providers with the most growth – Talk Talk and Sky. Not surprising, really. The only message here is that you get what you pay for. Sure, both Talk Talk and Sky may give lousy service, especially around things like not answering customer service calls, but the service they give is subsidised. The price the user pays is less than the cost to the supplier. I wonder how people responding to Watchdog’s survey will answer the question about “value for money”. My guess is that a high proportion will respond that they get poor value without even realising the service is subsidised. I also wonder whether Watchdog will do the decent thing and distinguish which ISPs give good service but poor value and those which give poor service but good value. Please also notice the one group of consumers whose interests are not being protected: the mugs who do not get broadband but who are paying inflated television, fixed-line or mobile telephony charges to finance the grab of broadband market share… Instead of demanding more money be spent on servicing broadband customers, Watchdog should be complaining about fair value for everyone else.
Closing the stable door after the horse has bolted
What exactly is the point of a consumer protection show? To help customers protect themselves? To force the regulator to intervene to protect customers? Wrong on both counts, if you take Watchdog as an example. Giving customers no useful information hardly helps them to protect themselves. But Watchdog did, in the end, give some accurate information. They told consumers that the regulator has already changed the rules in a way that will speed and improve migration of customers from one ISP to another. So well done Mr. Regulator. But as the rules on migrating customers have already changed, and the survey reflected opinions formed before the change in the rules, just what is acheived for the consumer by highlighting the historic issues? It seems hard to believe, but the only “news” here is that a regulator found out about a problem, and did something to fix it, before a bunch of lazy hack journalists wrote their lazy hack story about it. I do not know whether to be more shocked by the speed of the regulator or the inertia of the journalists. Please consider that regulators start the discussion relating to new regulations long long before the change takes place. The final wording of the new regulation was published months ago to give ISPs the time to make the changes necessary to comply. So everybody has known about many of the problems described in Watchdog’s show for ages. But when does it become important enough to report on it? When the problem is first identified? No. When the regulator decides it is a big enough issue that they need to act? No. The day somebody issues an out of date, commercially-available survey highlighting how bad things were when the problem was first identified? Yes. I can only imagine what breaking news the BBC will be giving us as a public service today: Soviet Union on the verge of break-up, Man lands on the Moon, silicon chips set to cause breakthrough in computing?
For those of you interested in doing the kind of research that the BBC cannot be bothered to, here is Ofcom’s statement on the new Condition 22 on MAC codes and broadband migrations. Our lazy friends of Watchdog might also have helped reduce the number of complaints – and the levels of dissatisfaction – by taking the care to point out in their report that the MAC code process and the 5-day handover period will not apply to a large minority of broadband customers. But never mind. They were probably exhausted from a hard day of staring out of the window at the taxpayer’s expense. They did get one fact right: that providers could be fined 10% of annual turnover if they failed to comply. In theory. On the TV show they even noted that “this would be a lot of money”! (These journalists must work round the clock on their material). It would have been slightly more informative to point out how unlikely it is that Ofcom would fine an ISP just 10 pounds or even just 10 pence for breaking the rules. I spend more on parking fines than Ofcom raises from penalties on ISPs. The chance of an Ofcom fine is smaller than the chance that Richard Branson will invite James Murdoch to holiday with him on his private island.
Here is the news. The BBC is a big waste of taxpayer’s money, reproducing old stories without checking the facts. Disreali’s maxim of “lies, damn lies and statistics” has been taken to new heights. All the BBC has done is read the summary of a survey, speak to a few customers and avoid any real investigation. If you still do not believe me about how lazy the BBC’s journalism is, check out the version of the story on the BBC News website or follow the link from there to a video clip of the story from yesterday’s main bulletin. Broadband providers are rubbish too, but you knew that already because telcos are rubbish in general. Particular problems with broadband relate to freeing up a network infrastructure created and maintained by a monopoly so it can be used by many service providers. Customers do not know or care about stuff like that and just want promises kept, but telcos focus on keeping 99% of promises and hoping the most complicated and expensive 1% of promises are delivered by magic. And you should never never never expect to get the facts from a DJ who spins wheels on game shows or from the presenter of a showcase for amusingly-shaped vegetables.
In other words, after all that, nothing new to report….