Now these same cable firms would like us to believe they have grown up. The industry has consolidated to leave only a handful of big players - Cable & Wireless Communications (CWC), NTL and Telewest. That is set to dwindle to two with NTL buying CWC. This rationalisation has brought more sophisticated marketing to promote them as hi-tech, cutting-edge, customer-focused companies.
But the Comparable Performance Indicators statistics collected and published on the service quality of telecoms operators, including the cable firms, suggest otherwise. Figures for the second half of 1998 show that in several key customer service areas most of the cable firms performed poorly against BT, which remains the industry benchmark. In the four main areas - prompt connection of new phone subscribers, number of faults reported, speedy handling of complaints, and accurate billing - CWC and Telewest lagged behind BT. Only NTL's figures bear comparison.
Anecodotes bear out the statistics. Tess Sullivan's phone was out of order for 13 days last month. Cable London, owned by Telewest, promised on three separate occasions to have the fault fixed that day. But the fault was only fixed after a fourth promise. Tess said: "I was given pounds 10 compensation and free line rental for three months, but it took over 10 phone calls to sort out, several from my mobile."
Although BT's service has im- proved over the past five years, it is worrying that only NTL among the cable companies can boast the same. But cable experts put this down to history.
"It is not the result of incompetence or disregard for customers," said Richard Woollam, ex-director general of the Cable Communications Association, the industry body, and now a managing partner of the European Communications Network consultancy. "It is due to the technical issues of combining all the customer service systems as the industry has consolidated from about 50 companies." But problems don't just lie with customer service or phone faults.
The picture quality of cable TV can also leave a lot to be desired. In March this year, Which? magazine revealed that its technical experts had checked the picture quality at 10 homes with cable TV. Bob Harrison, a senior scientist at Which? and the Consumer Association's lab, said: "The picture quality was poor in all 10 cases. A good aerial in an average reception area would have provided a better picture."
In 1995, Steve Tetchner was tempted to sign up to Telewest by the promise of a better picture. He spent three years trying to get problems with his cable reception sorted out. After several visits from Telewest engineers, it was eventually found his set-top box was tuned incorrectly. Mr Harrison said: "This was a typical problem in the homes we visited. It should have been spotted quickly and sorted out."
A spokesperson for CWC said: "We've recognised for some time that our customer service is not as good as we would wish to provide. That is why we've invested pounds 100m in customer service in the last 12 months. But it's not a quick-fix problem."
Stephen Powers of Telewest pointed out that in the past 18 months the company had reduced churn, the rate at which customers leave, by 7 per cent. At the same time, penetration rose to 35 per cent.
"This demonstrates our commitment to customer service." he said. "We're continually investing in and working on improving our customer service."
The good news for frustrated cable viewers is that these problems are likely to become a thing of the past as digital cable replaces analogue.
So far, competition among cable companies has focused on price and cheap TV-phone packages. But consumers want more than just low prices; quality of service and reliability matter. After all, despite the plethora of cheap phone deals, 84 per cent of subscribers are still with BT. Until the cable companies are able to match BT's service, they will not be viable competitors. It can't be coincidence that NTL had both the best service record and the highest penetration rate in the cable industry.
Chris Rowsell is the senior researcher for communications services at `Which?' magazine
COMPARABLE PERFORMANCE INDICATORS
BT NTL TELEWEST CWC
Connecting new subscribers in the promised time (%) 97 98 90 83
Number of faults reported (per 100 customer lines) 4.1 2.3 4.5 6.6
Percentage of complaints resolved within 20 working days 99 95 92 71
Number of billing complaints (per 1,000 bills) 2.4 0.4 3.5 4.7
NTL has franchises in Northern Ireland, South Wales, parts of Glasgow and various parts of England. Telewest serves much of Scotland, as well as various parts of England. CWC operates mostly in London.