It might be a cheap alternative to the duopoly of BT and Mercury, but the cable telephone - as Andrew North found out - just does not have that ring of confidence ...
My flatmate lives on the telephone. His addiction is so bad he has withdrawal symptoms if there is not one within a hand's reach. So when I took the plunge last summer and set up as a freelance journalist, I decided I had to have a second line. At least I would know for sure that no one was calling me, instead of imagining I was missing out on a great assignment because he was gassing next door.

I called BT and they quoted "pounds 99 plus VAT for a new line". "Outrage!" I cried, but what choice did I have?

On the day I was going to book the BT engineers, I heard from a friend in Newcastle about this great deal he had struck for a cable TV phone. Free connection and low rental, plus umpteen channels of extra low-quality television for less than the price of two pints of Newcastle Brown a month.

If there is one thing a hungry freelancer likes, it's a deal. So I tracked down a cable company and, sure enough, they were doing a bargain-basement phone service. Not quite as cheap as the Geordie version, but at pounds 10 for the connection, a lower rental than BT and lower call charges, I was not complaining. I had saved myself more than pounds 100 before I had even picked up the receiver. And I could have 27 channels of appalling TV for a tenner a month extra, if I wanted.

I did not; but I was more than happy with my cable phone. And I was even getting some calls and faxes. Then, as the arrival of the autumn rains announced that my first summer of freelancing was over, everything changed.

The phone began to ring constantly, when no one was calling. A crackle developed, so bad that at times it was like making a call to Iraq. Then it went dead. I called in the engineers, but they could not find anything wrong. "Rain might have got into the junction box," they offered, "but we don't think it will happen again."

This happened four more times lastOctober and each time they assured me the problem would not recur. But that was four days of having to stay in the flat, when I should have been out working. I complained and was rewarded with a month's rental as compensation. At cable rates, that is peanuts: about pounds 8. I demanded more, but was told I had been awarded the maximum compensation permissible "under our terms and conditions". I gave up, but luckily so did the gremlin attacking my line.

Then in June it all started again. The phone would suddenly go dead, often just after I had been using it. This time they sent one of their senior engineers. "We think your equipment may be causing the line to park," he explained, inexplicably. So now they were trying to put the blame on me.

"Why can't you fix it permanently?" I demanded. "I thought cable companies were using the latest fibre-optic technology. Your phone system should be more reliable than BT's." The engineer laughed at my naivety. "No way, BT's system is much better than ours." Quizzing him a bit further, he admitted he thought the cable companies were only interested in telephones to get by until their TV services started to pull in serious money.

"That's a load of nonsense," spluttered a spokesman for the Cable Communications Association, the cable industry's representative body, when I put these accusations to him. "Phone services are an integral part of our plans. And we're using the most advanced technology - ATM switching, fibre-optics - in our network. And it's fully digital."

"But is it as good as BT's?" I asked. "I'd say local cable phone networks are actually better than BT's," he responded, subtly sidestepping the question. Yet when pressed, he did not deny that the cable companies had rushed into providing phone services since the Government ended the BT/Mercury duopoly, and that there had been some variations in service as a result. "But we are committed to telephone provision and we know our long-term prosperity depends on our quality of service," he said.

Well, that is comforting. But I am stuck with a cable line I do not entirely trust. I cannot face the hassle of cancelling it and giving everyone a new number. But I regret rushing into cable telephone. If reliability is more important to you than cost, it might be better to wait until all the cable companies have caught up with themselves and can guarantee a better service.

Comments