Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Heart of Local Loop Darkness

TalkTalk is excelling itself with incompetence and overloading. Call its Faults department and - if you aren't told they're busy so call back later - it takes around 30 minutes to connect you to someone who may know nothing about local loop unbundling and broadband.

Yesterday (my eighth day of no broadband or telephone) was a classic. I was assured that I had been disconnected because of "instructions from BT". I tried to get more of an explanation - as this made no sense according to my understanding of the way local loop unbundling works. BT has indeed switched their service off - the problem is that Carphone Warehouse's subsidiary, TalkTalk's sister company Opal Telecom, should be providing a service but isn't.

"BT made us do it," said the TalkTalk Faults guy, sounding more and more strange and otherworldly. "They don't tell us why, they give us instructions." TalkTalk hears voices, you know.

In the end, after I'd asked for more information once too often, he hung up on me (that's a first for me) leaving me to call the BT number he gave me. Sure enough, BT confirmed that my TalkTalk Faults person had indeed been talking utter rubbish.

Was he just making something up to get rid of me? Or is it just that TalkTalk's back-end systems are poorly designed and overloaded, and I got one of the army of new call-centre staff it's taken on, who simply couldn't make sense of what the system told him?

I've got a recording of the call, which I'll put online when I'm not connecting by GPRS (as I have been for a week now).

Today's call was a little better, though massively longer. I had a total of two hours on hold music, while I took my daughter to school and chatted with another unbundling victim at the school gates. There's clearly serious trouble at the Tulse Hill Exchange (8674 code).

When I got back, still on hold I tried to pick out the tune on the concertina. I'm never going to get good at this, but it's nice to have something to play along to. "We have got to get it togetherm now!"

I checked my email. I'm tying up two mobile phones here, to do voice and data that should be on my landline.

Finally, TalkTalk answered. I spoke to someone who actually understood unbundling, and agreed that what I needed was for TalkTalk to get Opal Telecom to send BT OpenReach (they stil own the exchange and have the keys, basically round to fix the problem. I'm priority one, apparently, because I've got no phone or broadband.

They still can't put a date on it though. That's because TalkTalk is completely overloaded and, I increasingly feel, incompetent to handle unbundling.

It's ironic really, because eight years ago, I was cheering on the efforts of Oftel ( as Ofcom was then) to force BT into unbundling. BT argued that it would cause chaos, but we knew unbundling was the only way to get fast broadband and choice.

A smiling BT engineer in Christchurch Road directed me to the Tulse Hill Exchange and put the BT case again, much more convincingly. "Unbundling? Ha ha!" he said.

The exchange, in New Park Road, is an old building, with racks visible inside. It is strange to see the centre of my communications universe, and find it so barren and desolate. The lights are on, and someone is walking around upstairs.

Apparently they've got plenty of other lines to fix before mine though, because mine's still dead.

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