My two or three regular readers might be wondering why I haven’t yet added anything to this blog since I decreed a couple of months ago that I was going to bring it back to life again.  Having got used to my “now you see him, now you don’t” blogging style over the years, they may have simply put it down to my usual inability to blog on anything short of geological timescales, but I assure you all that this isn’t the case.

Leaving aside the chaos attendant upon our recent house move (which you will know about if you follow Glenda’s blog or have been keeping an eye on her Facebook page or my Twitter feed) the real blockage in the blogging pipeline has been BT.  Yes indeed, British Telecom, our wonderful (not!) incumbent telecoms provider and – I hesitate to admit – a company for which I myself worked at one time during my long and interesting (OK, boring) career.

Believe it or not, they actually kept sending men round and taking my keyboard off me every time I tried to blog something.  Honest!

No?

OK, OK, that’s not true.  They did, however, manage to put a slight crimp on my blogging activities by the simple expedient of failing to provide us with broadband.  Or, indeed, a telephone line.  Curious?  Let me tell you more – although it’s probably a good idea to grab a nice cuppa (or a large gin and tonic) and find a comfy chair.  It’s a long, long, very long, long story…

Cast your mind back, dear reader, to the end of May.  At that time, Glenda and I were preparing for a house move that was scheduled to happen around the second or third week of June.  With the pending relocation in mind, we duly contacted BT and asked for our existing phone and broadband service to be transferred to our new home at the appropriate time.  We even informed them of the fact that the house to which we were moving didn’t have a phone line, so they would need to install one.  Feeling all very well organised and slightly smug, we left them to it.

A day or two later, they contacted us to say that there was an active phone line at the house and they had had to cancel the order because, when they phoned it, the person who answered said that they weren’t moving house at all.  This struck us as odd for two reasons:

  1. we were pretty sure there really wasn’t a phone line anywhere in the house; and
  2. there wasn’t anyone living in the house at the time – it was already vacant and had been for around 9 months.

We explained this to BT and asked them to look into it again.  They did so and (if I remember rightly) promptly proceeded to cancel our order again for the exact same reason as before.  This time, however, we did at least manage to get the number in question from BT so we thought “Well, we might as well ring it and see what happens!” so we did.

This was how we got to know some of our new neighbours before we ever moved into the house.  It turned out that the phone number BT kept calling was actually connected to a completely different house, two doors down from ours.  Owing to the local council re-numbering the houses on the street after some of them were already completed and occupied, BT (and various other utilities) had an “off by two” error in many of their databases and were regularly getting things a bit mixed up.  Now, to a certain extent, you can cut BT a little slack for this.  After all, it wasn’t their fault that the houses had been re-numbered from their original plot numbers when they were built.  However, the renumbering exercise happened some considerable time ago (as in years ago) and, in spite of the elapsed time, BT still hadn’t managed to correct things.  Even though our neighbours (who are a lovely couple, by the way) had repeatedly tried to sort it out.  In fact, it had taken something like 18 months (and many phone calls, emails, letters, etc.) just for BT’s billing department to start sending their bill to the right address.  And even when that had been fixed, various other bits of BT (BT directory enquiries, BT Openreach who manage the exchanges and lines, etc.) still had the wrong house number in all their systems.

Under the circumstances, is it any wonder that they didn’t manage to sort out our phone and broadband at that point?  However, it actually had to get to the stage where we registered a formal complaint and almost had to start jumping up and down screaming like Basil Fawlty thrashing an Austin 1100 before we could get them to pay attention and try to sort it out.  Even then, it took them five or six weeks just to do the database updates that they needed.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I have learned a little bit about databases over the years and I can say with some degree of confidence that the only way it will take you that long just to fix up a record in a couple of databases here and there is if your organisation is so hidebound and incompetent that it can’t find its collective bum with both hands and an atlas.

So, the week of the move came and went.  We moved house as planned and we waited for BT to get in touch and tell us that they now knew which house we were talking about and that they were going to connect a phone line to it.  Lo and behold, a week or so after we moved we were informed that we would shortly be receiving our broadband kit (router, etc.) and that a nice engineer would be coming out to activate our phone line and broadband in mid-July.  “Yay!” we thought, “They’ve sorted it out, now we’ll get a phone line.  After all, how hard can it be?”

Those of you who are familiar with a certain, rather successful BBC motoring programme will know just what the phrase “how hard can it be?” means…

As time ticked ever closer to the mid-July date for activating our line and we saw and heard nothing of anyone coming to the house to connect an actual physical cable, we began to wonder whether we had been a little optimistic in our assessment.  With that in mind, we contacted BT and made sure that they knew that there wasn’t, in fact, a physical phone line connected to the house and that they would have to install one first.  “That’s fine” they said.  “The engineer will just run a line from the nearest telegraph pole.”

“Er, no he won’t” we said, “all the cabling in this street is underground.  The nearest telegraph pole to this house is in a different street altogether and is some distance away.”

“Oh” they said.  “Then we’ll need to run a new cable all the way from the exchange for you.  That might take a while to arrange.”

“What?!” I said.  “You don’t need to run a new cable from the exchange at all.  There’s a BT underground line box in the pavement right outside the house!  I’m standing at my front door looking at it and it’s all of 10 metres away. All the cabling for the other houses in the street will be in there.  You just need to get us connected to a spare line in there and we’re sorted.”

“Ah, OK” they said “we’ll sort it out.”

Great!  We’re back on track again!  OK, so the mid-July deadline was looking a bit tricky (given that all this was happening sometime towards the end of the first week of July) but at least we were getting somewhere.

Fast forward another couple of days.  I called again just to check what was happening with the job.  First of all, I was met with “Ah yes, I can see you need a new line.  Where’s the nearest telegraph pole?”

Now, dear readers, I don’t want distress any of you or to sully your eyes and offend your sensibilities with foul and profane language.  Suffice to say that my immediate mental response to this question is best abbreviated as “OMFG! FFS! There isn’t any F*%!!”$ TELEGRAPH POLE!!!!!”

By some miracle of self-control, I managed to say “Er, no, there isn’t a telegraph pole.  All the cabling here is underground.”

“Ah, OK” they said, “we’ll arrange to send a site engineer out to survey where the cable will need to go.”

OK, that’s fine by me.  I checked whether the (rapidly approaching) mid-July deadline would still be met and was assured that the engineer would be there to survey the job within the next day or two and that all would be progressing according to plan.

This time, neither Glenda nor myself believed a word of it.

The engineer finally came to survey the site on the day that the line was supposed to be activated.  He was great, he immediately understood what was needed (basically, about 12 meters of underground duct work and some cable) and returned to his office to set the wheels in motion.

At this point, I confess that I was breathing a little easier.  Having seen BT from the inside, I knew that once you had managed to get to the point of talking to the actual engineering staff (i.e. the men and women who actually do all the work) you’re usually on the home stretch.  It’s the planners, job schedulers and assorted managers (most of whom wouldn’t know a BT underground cable if you strangled them with it) who are usually the ones to screw it all up.  So I was feeling pretty good about things.  There was a slight hiccup with some forms that needed filling in, but the engineer/surveyor helped to expedite those and, within a day or two, we were confident that ducts and cables and phone lines would be arriving in due course.

Another week or two passed.  We thought it was a little odd that we hadn’t heard anything so we’d just check up on things.

“What’s happening with our phone line and broadband order?” we asked.

“Oh,we’re waiting for your builder to confirm that they’ve installed all the ducts and cable in accordance with our specifications” they said.

“Er…what builder?” we asked.

“The builder building your new house” they said.

“There isn’t a new house.  We’ve just bought the house.  It was built seven or eight years ago and there are no builders here.  There haven’t been any builders here for seven or eight years.  YOU (as in BT) need to do ALL the work yourselves.” we said.

“Oh no” they said “it’s up to you to get all the cabling done in accordance with our specification”.

“Er…no it isn’t” I said.  “You’ll find that, since this is a residential property,  it is covered by BT’s Universal Service Obligation and it is up to YOU to provide the telephone service and that includes installing the line if there isn’t already one here.  We only have to pay a contribution towards it if the cost of the work comes to more than around three and a half thousand pounds.  Oh, and just so you know, I know the work that needs done and it isn’t going to cost three and a half grand, so don’t even go there!”

“Oh” they said.  “We’ll sort it out then.”

“Thank you” we said.  “Keep us posted please.  Oh, by the way, we’d like to raise our second formal complaint about this job as well.”

“Er…alright” they said meekly. “We’ll be in touch.”

To be fair, they were in touch.  Within a few days, we received notification that the necessary groundwork and cabling would be done around the third week of August and that our shiny new phone and broadband line would finally be activated a few days before the end of the month.  “Yippee!” we thought.

We were even happier when, at the appointed time (in fact, two days early) some sub-contractors arrived and duly dug a neat trench through the footpath outside and then across our lawn and under the block-paving and installed a suitable duct, leading all the way back to the BT underground line box.  By the time that the groundwork was supposed to be started, it had actually been finished (but for replacing the tarmac on the footpath) and we were just waiting for the men with the cable to arrive.

Our happiness grew apace when – two days before we were due to have our line activated – a couple of BT Openreach engineers arrived, pulled the cable through the duct, connected it up to a spare line in the underground box and installed a BT master socket on the wall in our living room.  Fantastic!  It’s all systems go for phone and broadband before September comes in!

Except that it wasn’t.

The appointed day of the great phone and broadband activation came and went with nary a sign of a BT engineer or a working phone line.  Although, to be scrupulously fair here, a road crew did come along and replace the tarmac surface on the footpath that day.  Made a pretty neat job of it too.

Anyway, we called BT up to ask them about the line again.

“Oh, we’re waiting for your builder to confirm that all the cabling is done.” they said.

You recall what I said earlier about not wanting to offend sensibilities, etc?  Yes?  Probably best to look away now then…

“What!!??  What F*^&£*£ builder!  There isn’t any F&*$%£% builder!!  FFS!  Can’t you get anything right?!??!”

Actually, that wasn’t what I said.  It’s a close (although rather sanitised) approximation to what I thought, but by another exercise of almost superhuman self-control, I managed to come out with “Er…no, there’s no builders here.  It’s not a new build.  Your own BT Openreach engineers have already been here and done the cabling, it just needs activation.”

“Oh, OK” they said “we’ll sort it out.”

Yes, another couple of days pass.  We check again.

“Oh, we’re just waiting for the cabling to be done.” they said. “According to the paperwork I’ve got here, our contractors – Carillion/Telent – still have cable work to complete at the house.”

“Er…no they don’t” I said.  “Carillion/Telent have had nothing to do with this.  The cablework was completed last week by BT Openreach themselves.  According to the engineers who were here the line is connected right through to the exchange and just needs activation.”

“Oh no” they said “BT Openreach don’t do the cabling.  That’s all done for us by Carillion.”

“If BT Openreach don’t do the cabling, how come I stood here and watched two BT Openreach engineers arrive in their BT Openreach Transit vans, pull the necessary cable through the duct, connect it to the main exchange line in the underground box and install the master socket on our wall then?” I asked (a touch sarcastically I admit).

“Er…I don’t really know” said the whey-faced poltroon on the other end of the phone.

“Well, do me a favour, just learn to do your job and find out what exactly in the name of all that’s holy is going on with our line then would you?” I said.

“Er…yes” they said.  “You’ll have an update tomorrow or the day after at the latest.”

Two days later, we duly did get a call.

“Er…we’re still waiting for our contractors to complete their cable work.  The job is scheduled to be done by the 9th of September.  You’ll get another update then.” they said.

“And which cable work might this be?” I asked.

“The cable work at the house.” they replied.

“No it isn’t” I said “because the cable work at the house is all done.”

“Er…ah…er it’s some other cable work somewhere else” they said with a slight air of desperation (or perhaps I imagined that?)

“I don’t believe you” I said.  “I don’t think you know what on earth is going on and I think that the job sheet that you’re reading from is purely and simply wrong.  As in not correct.  As in, it bears no relationship to what has been happening here on (and, indeed, in) the ground.”

“But that’s what it says.  We’ve checked and double-checked and there’s nothing else I can do.  You’ll just have to wait until you get your next update on the 9th of September.”

At this point, I asked the BT nitwit if they would just hold on for a moment and I asked Glenda if she was OK with me cancelling the order altogether.  (It’s worth noting at this point that, over the course of the previous two months, Glenda had got so sick and tired of this whole debacle that she had given up on it all and whenever BT phoned her, she just handed her mobile phone straight to me.)

To my wonderful wife’s credit, she took the phone back from me and gave it one last shot.

She went through it all again.

She explained to the BT ninny on the other end all the same things that I had explained (repeatedly) over the last two or three phone calls.

In the end, she asked them one simple question:

“OK, if we cancel this order now, will we be charged for any of the work that has already been done?”

“Er…no” they said “because we haven’t actually provided you with any service.”

“Can I just check that again?” said Glenda.  “If we cancel the order now, there will be NO charges for anything?”

“No, there will be no charges” said BT.

“Then we’d like to cancel the order please!”

“Er…really?”

“Yes just cancel it all.” said Glenda.

“And stick your useless damned phone line and broadband right up your bum.  Sideways!” thought Adrian.

And that, folks,  is how we find ourselves here in our new home, getting on towards three months since we moved in, and still without a working phone line or broadband service.

I have only been able to write this gargantuan tale of telecommunications woe and incompetence thanks to my mobile phone which, fortunately, maintains a pretty good 3G signal here in the house and – more importantly – is on a contract that includes an unlimited mobile broadband package.

In fact, if it hadn’t been for our mobile phones and their unlimited mobile broadband, we would have been rightly and royally up the creek by now.  So that’s a “Thanks guys!” to EE/T-Mobile (although I was rather miffed when some numpty in London cut a cable and sent their entire network to sleep for 24 hours a week or two ago) and a big “Yah, boo, you smell like poo!” to BT.

There are, however, two funny little footnotes to the whole tale.

First of all, having bitten the bullet and told BT to take a very long jump off a very short pier, I asked around to find if anyone could recommend an alternative provider.  Now, OK, I know as well as you do that – unless you happen to live in Hull or have Virgin Media fibre/cable in your street – it pretty much doesn’t matter who you get your phone service from, since it will be BT Wholesale and BT Openreach who actually provide the physical cable and manage the exchange.  However, I figured that some other poor soul could have the pleasure of dealing with BT’s incompetence and I’d just order phone and broadband from someone else.  So…after getting a couple of recommendations from a couple of folks, I proceeded to order phone and broadband service from the Post Office.  And, so far, they’re giving me a feeling of quiet confidence.  Although I didn’t regale them with my sorry tale of cabling woe, I did explain that there is a BT master socket on the wall here, but it doesn’t have any kind of phone service or even a dial-tone on it.  They were completely unphased by this and have arranged for an engineer to call at the beginning of October to sort out getting it all connected and working.  Actually, they could have done it sooner, but we weren’t going to be around for the earlier appointment so we agreed the October date between us.  It will be interesting to see what happens.  I’m half expecting one of the BT Openreach engineers that we have already met to turn up and start wondering why he’s activating a line on behalf of the Post Office.  Although, if that happens, he probably won’t be in the least surprised when I tell him that he and the other engineers did everything just fine, but BT’s planners and job schedulers then made a pig’s ear of it all on the final straight.

The second funny footnote was the email that I received from BT this morning, saying that I should activate my new BT ID so that I could see my latest bill online.  In the absence of a working BT ID (and, indeed, a working BT anything) I phoned them up.

“What bill?” I asked.

“What’s your phone number?” they asked.

“I don’t have one.” I said.

“Er…what’s your account number?” they asked.

“I don’t have one.” I said.  “I don’t have an account number or a phone number because you spectacularly failed to provide me with a working phone line in the first place.  More to the point, when we finally got sick and tired of you making a hash of the job, we specifically asked whether there would be any charges and were told no.”

“Ah, er, OK” said the BT person “I can see that you cancelled the order on September 3rd.  Er…er…and you were supposed to get your phone line and broadband on July 14th.  Er…I just need to talk to someone, would you mind holding?”

“Not at all” I said.

A few minutes later they came back to say that they were very sorry, that the charges on the bill would be cancelled completely and the whole account closed.

I got the emails confirming all that within an hour or so.

Which just goes to show you – they can sometimes get something right.

Poltroons.