PS Consultants - ideas & solutions

Highway Robbery..?
November 1998

For those of us who hate waiting for modems to connect, and all the attendant hassle of modem standards and speeds, one of the most rumoured and discussed events of the UK telecom scene has been the arrival of genuine digital connections for all at a price that all could afford.

BT's "Home Highway" service - which has been variously billed over the past year as the rumour mill has been grinding, as anything from "ISDN for the price of a regular phone line" to a full blown 4Mbit ADSL to the home service.

Dream on, chaps and chapesses. The BT marketing department has done its worst, as usual.

In their own words:

"BT BusinessHighway is an exciting new product from BT designed to bring the benefits of digital technology into your work place and will be launched this autumn! "

What emerged from all the hype is a product called "Highway", that is to all intents and purposes ISDN2 with two analogue ports as well as two digital ports on the wall. There is Home Highway and 3 flavours of Business Highway, so what we have here is in effect a fourth permutation of traditional ISDN2.

The pricing is sufficiently non-creative to suggest that someone at BT woke up and realised that they still enjoy a very handy monopoly of basic rate ISDN delivery, so why bow to non-existent competitive pressures..? The install cost is 116.33 (inc VAT) and the rental is 40/month, including 15/month "free call" allowance. It's not clear (yet) what the minimum commitments are going to be.

ISDN2 has always been delivered down standard copper circuits. There are some issues about distance from the exchange equipment, but delivery of ISDN to the home has always been available. About 18 months ago, BT took the very simple 400 install, 83/qtr rental and standard call charge proposition (which had been the case for around 5 years), and buried in the most astonishing contrivance of a demented marketing person's mind ever seen. Although as you and I know full well, the price of communications technology hardware has collapsed at least tenfold in ten years, BT actually had the nerve to put up the cost of ISDN in this world-class smoke and mirrors performance.

I won't begin to try and describe the current state of the ISDN2 offering to you, because not only can I not interpret the barmy proposition, nor could the BT sales lady I spoke to. In essence, it's a blend of specious waffle about various start-up costs coupled to varying amounts of "free calls" and long term committements. I would like to advise you all to forget it and buy a competitive digital offering available in all homes of the land, but I can't. It's still a monopoly with precious few exceptions.

Moreover, although ISDN can pick and drop call connections in milliseconds, good old BT still charges a minimum of 4.2p a call even when you can dive and out for the email in 5 seconds, you pay for 5 minutes. Nice One BT. And most ISDN connection devices still don't have the intelligence necessary now how to manage this in terms of call timeout settings.  If you want to know the current BT charges, then tune in to:

http://www.serviceview.bt.com/list/current/docs/Call_Charges/00161.htm

And the marketingspeak continues:

"BT's Highway service, available from September 15, transforms a customer's existing telephone line into a new fast, reliable and multi-functional digital Internet and multimedia connection. It emphasises ease of use, flexibility, comprehensive customer support and speed - taking the wait out of the World Wide Web. "

The new service uses the latest digital access technology supplied by Marconi Communications and Ericsson, and operates over existing BT telephone lines at speeds several times faster than the fastest modem. "

Compare one channel at 64k versus analogue at 56k and this is not "several times". BT also fail to point out that at 128k, you will pay double the call charges.

"Other uses of BT Highway include the ability to view goods on the Internet using a digital data channel, and phone over the order on the spare telephone channel"

So there you are, admiring a new hard disk on sale at a US web site; but instead of pressing the order button and continuing the deal on a single local rate call, you decide to dial them directly at BT's usurious long distance rates; fight your way through some God-awful voicemail scheme, and eventually order by voice. I don't think so.

Since BT has not shown the necessary imagination or urgency to help the UK compete with the costs enjoyed in places like the US and increasing numbers in Europe, Oftel could threaten to divest BT of the local loop entirely. With so many competing carriers waiting at the nearest exchange to offer you 5p a minute to the USA and all manner of fabulous deals, the local loop remains BT stranglehold, so let's try and find a way to give this back to the users in the form of locally franchised services, since there is apparently no prospect of there ever being effective competition on a national scale. BT's agenda and local loop monopoly is contrary to the national interest, as the world moves towards fixed circuits with packet data switching.