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Mired in connection limbo

It was good news to hear that BT is considering rolling out fibre-based ultra-fast broadband across the UK. BT's £1.5billion proposed investment would serve approximately 10million customers with direct fibre or 'fibre to the kerb' by 2012. There are significant regulatory hurdles to be overcome, but the move would in some part silence critics who have suggested that the UK's broadband infrastructure is in danger of falling behind the rest of the world, leaving businesses and consumers unable to take advantage of the next internet innovations.

As John Walko notes in BT plans major boost to broadband speeds, the UK has been slower to invest in fast broadband than other European countries. Some subscribers across Europe already have access to fibre-to-the-home. For example, France Telecom's Orange and Free began installing a fibre-optic network in Paris last year, and there are fibre-optic projects planned for numerous other French cities. Research firm Point Topic says that interest in fibre is high in the US, UK, France and Germany, but that low availability is hampering growth.

Whilst such infrastructure investments deserve applause, recent personal experience would suggest that certain broadband providers aren't capable of rolling-out existing broadband services yet. My concern is that more needs to be done to improve customer service within the sector, before any additional technology capability is brought into effect.

As a freelancer, I spend enough high days and holidays in France to have justified signing up to a permanent home broadband package. On arrival this time though, I found the service had been summarily cut – no explanation, and yes, I had paid the bill! After days of ploughing through the molasses that is France Telecom's customer service department, including several two hour treks to their nearest shop, it was clear that getting the line reconstructed in time for my latest Analog DesignLine missive was like asking for the moon on a stick. In desperation and assured of immediate connection, I purchased a 3G card from them … five days later and I still haven't received the activation code. Fortunately, not all 'service' providers are created equal and SFR subsequently provided me with a 3G card that worked out of the box.

I know that France Telecom is not alone; I have heard similar tales of woe on both sides of the English Channel and involving various broadband providers. One element of the problem could be the sheer popularity of broadband services. But if my experience is being replayed across throughout the country (and the disgruntled queue in the FT bureau suggested it is); and from land to land; then its not just a mountain of abandoned broadband routers and 3G cards that are being left in the wake. Poor service provision breeds brand distrust, and with huge fibre-optic investments planned, it seems a bad time to get a reputation for taking your customers for mugs.

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