cable in knots

Poor Internet Service Provision Will Tie Your Life In Knots

cable in knotsPeople are migrating in their millions from landlines to voice over IP (VoIP) systems. Video over the internet is a major way of keeping in touch with dispersed family members around the globe. More television services are being offered over the internet, including the fastest growing aspect, catch-up. Music services, such as Spotify and internet radio, are a major way of accessing music.  Many of us would go into a screaming frenzy should we be held back from using Facebook, Instagram, or other social networks for more than a couple of hours.

Outside of the selfishly “me” services, the majority of organizations are now completely dependent on the internet for many aspects of their business — from telephony to advertising and taking orders from customers through to managing supply chains and payment services.

And yet, the basic underlying component that we are all so dependent on, the provision of internet services, seems to be provided by a raft of companies that don’t seem to be taking their responsibilities seriously.

From a consumer point of view, look at the 2014 American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) report: internet service providers (ISPs) come the lowest of all the 43 household consumer industries they cover.

Look at the 2013 figures from the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries (OFCOM) and consumer magazine Which, and you see that for the highest rated large internet service provider, Sky, only 24% would use the provider again, and it only got a 23% overall satisfaction rating — and remember, this was the best out of the large providers.

Sure, smaller providers tend to do better in many cases, yet for the average end user, trying to choose between the gobblydegook of one set of advertising messages against another is difficult.  For businesses, too, trusting a small service provider is also not easy – and once you do decide, there is always the risk that it will get swallowed up by one of the larger providers that you actively decided not to use.

Trying to find out why the whole of the large ISP market tends to be so bad is not difficult.  Margins on services are wafer-thin.  If one provider charges just a little more than the other, the likelihood is that consumers will go to the one that can save them a few dollars a year.  With such small margins, something has to give.

Investment in the basic infrastructure has to continue — not being able to actually provide a modern service with a decent amount of bandwidth is a sure-fire way to go out of business.  However, ensuring that everyone gets what they are promised is not something that that the provider seems to be that worried about.  A high-speed broadband connection may be promised – let’s say an “up to 80MB/s” service – but when the customer only gets 5MB/s, they can always be told that the distance from the exchange, the number of people using the global internet, or simply something like their star sign is making it slow just at this moment.

Proactive management tools that can identify problems before they become issues can be regarded as unnecessary — the flood of people contacting the helpdesk is often enough of a system to show that there is a problem. But that then means that the helpdesk needs to be adequately staffed, doesn’t it?

Well now – many users will hang up after a minute or so of waiting and will then find that the service has mysteriously recovered, so having just a few helpdesk staff can help in cutting down the number of actual calls that have to be answered.  Why invest in expensive front-line staff, when the vast majority of problems being reported are simple, end-user generated ones, such as having switched the router off or unplugging a cable?  The rate of churn in service provider helpdesks is massive — up to 60% or more in some companies — and training them up to a decent level is just not seen as being worth it.  That the lack of training results in unhappy customers who take it out on the staff who then get stressed and leave is not seen as something the provider needs to worry about…  there are plenty more jobseekers in the sea.

For businesses, this lack of a dependable, consistent internet service has a direct impact on them.  Users who have slow internet services or intermittent problems will be less likely to use the business’ all singing, all dancing web sites — and so won’t buy from them.  Yet simple sites with low bandwidth needs don’t attract buyers either.

There is no simple solution to the problems of poor internet service provision.  We could all agree to pay more so that the service providers can invest more in the services beyond the fiber or copper — but we all know that we don’t want to do that.  Governments could intervene and force better services.  Some of this is happening; for example, in the UK, the use of “up to” speeds in advertising has to be fully supportable that this is a speed that most people can obtain.  However, it appears that this is not being policed, so it is pretty toothless.

As it stands, it appears that we will remain dependent on service providers that barely provide a basic consistent service; on being increasingly dependent on connectivity that is not really fit for purpose.  However, a new player could always emerge that has a business model that enables a consistent, fast service to be provided at a decent price.

But what are the chances of that?