It’s one of the mysteries of the modern world that BT should enjoy such a high brand valuation while being a byword in the UK for appalling customer service. Most people I know can hardly speak its name without spitting; “bloody BT” must be one of the most common pairings in the British language. It’s up there with the weather as one of the aspects of daily life we Brits like to moan about.
Familiarity is not the same as trust. BT enjoys huge brand recognition, but I’d guess that the only reason it commands any loyalty at all is that its competitors (including the mobile phone companies) are often even worse.
This lack of trust across the sector matters. I’ve worked enough both with BT and some of those mobile competitors to know that they’ve all fretted about being reduced to commodity status, forced to compete primarily on price. They’ve all wondered over the years about whether they could reposition themselves as trusted guides to the digital world. The problem is that very often they are the last people you’d trust.
All the same BT’s acquisition of EE is potentially a game changer.
Tech companies are often facilitators of disruptive change, and yet are hardly immune from it themselves. It took BT a long while to recognise that its cash cow (fixed line telephony with time and distance based charges) was already walking dead. Similarly just a few years ago a mobile operator executive spoke to me of the importance of maintaining perceptions of “mobility” as a premium service. The mobile companies had become very profitable on that basis so it’s not surprising that they should want to cling to that position, but if ever a sector did not understand the forces driving its own customer base the mobile operators must stand up to be counted. Even now they haven’t quite got their heads around a world where data is more important than voice (though of course I understand that their networks weren’t originally engineered to cope with that shift).
BT to be fair, has adapted its business model to this changing world, putting its broadband services centre stage. The customer service might not have improved but at least the strategy makes a little more sense. It has moved into content through its BT Vision and BT Sport services, and now it’s reacquiring a proper mobile capability.
I’m told that the company was originally forced to sell off its mobile division (Cellnet/O2) to save its balance sheet, but it always seemed a puzzling decision at a time when it was clear that mobile would be the future. The EE acquisition puts right that earlier mistake (or makes up for the mistakes that forced the fire sale), and I think its consequences could go beyond the immediate competitive benefits for BT. It might change the way we use technology in the UK.
My inner nerd has never been impressed with the iPhone, but it’s had an undeniable impact culturally and commercially. Commercially it put a nail in the mobile carriers’ hopes of owning their customers. They knew this would happen, but couldn’t resist the tide of consumer demand. Those carriers had tried for years to get those customers to pick up on their “value added” data services, but those “WAP” services, delivered at best over a 3G connection, overpriced and always underwhelming, had never gained any traction. With the iPhone the carriers not only lost control of the brand relationship, but they also lost out to the AppStore, (and latterly, Android’s Play) in terms of perceived added value.
The iPhone was by no means the first smartphone, but it brought the concept into the cultural mainstream. It turned the humble phone into a social and practical necessity, and made real the often-envisioned possibility of lives permanently tethered to the internet. In doing so it helped to change how we see the internet, making it personal, as something we carry with us rather than something locked behind a terminal in a dark or messy corner of the house. For many, particularly younger people, the phone has become the primary (and sometimes sole) access point to the digital world: small wonder there’s been pressure for screens to grow bigger.
With BT taking full control of a large mobile network I suspect we’ll finally see the death of the idea that mobility must be a premium service. I don’t want to be starry-eyed about this. Britain is a relatively small country and even here there are still serious disparities in regional and local broadband connectivity, whether fixed line or wireless. There’s a tension too at work between BT’s status as an effective monopolist of fixed line provision and the need to force a necessarily artificial market in broadband supply. At the moment this is addressed by compelling BT’s Openreach wholesale operation to work at arm’s length from its parent. It will be interesting to see how the extended wireless infrastructure brought in by the EE acquisition will be managed (because in wireless there is not the same monopoly infrastructure, even if all the wireless networks still tend to plug into the BT fixed network for longer distance “backhaul” transmission). I imagine there’s going to have to be some adjustment to regulatory terms to ensure that BT has the incentive to fulfill its potential, and meet the government’s demand for seamless broadband access in every part of the country.
So there are some serious questions to be answered, and a lot of work that needs to be done, but the potential impact is there to realised.
I have a landline, because it comes with my broadband package, but I don’t often use it to make or receive calls, partly because my mobile package already gives me all the voice connectivity I need, partly because the handset feels unpleasant and clunky to use after my smartphone. My smartphone links effortlessly to my contact data, my calendar and everything else I maintain on my desktop, tablet and laptop. The landline handset feels hopelessly isolated from all this, a fact which BT itself recognised by offering an Android and iOS app that links via Wifi to your landline call package. I don’t use it because the call quality has not been great, (and more recently because it’s not available on a Windows Phone) but it’s a sign of things to come.
Voice calls are just one of the things I want to do on this smallish device I carry with me everywhere. Those calls are increasingly carried over the network like any other sequence of data. Traditional tariff distinctions between voice and other types of communication, between local and local distance calls, as well as between fixed and mobile, belong to a different era. We can and should expect tariff structures that reflect this reality, that stop forcing antiquated physical devices on us, and let us get on with the way that ubiquitous internet access can help us (that ubiquity raises important questions about privacy, but that’s for another discussion).
This is about more than how we pay for connectivity. It’s about the ease with which we can get at the things we need, and the way those services may become embedded in what we do. High end phones cost as much as a decent home computer, but I suspect they’re often a preferred internet access device because they are easier to set up and use. In reality even a modest desktop computer is far more flexible and powerful than any phone, but that flexibility ensures they can be fiddly: none of them “just work” in the way other consumer technologies work, but phones and tablets do offer something of that ease.
Perhaps what’s really going on through this multiplicity of devices is that the hardware is becoming less obtrusive, less important. What matters is that we should be able to do what we want to do with our internet-backed services or tools using whatever device (literally) comes to hand. People have been talking about this for many years, but perhaps it’s finally coming close to reality. This is certainly the big bet Microsoft is making with Windows 10, mirroring the erosion of network access boundaries, trying to create as uniform a Windows experience as possible whether someone is on a laptop, phone or tablet. It could be seen as a way of pushing the software out of the way, just as the hardware and network connectivity is slipping into the background (until it stops working of course).
Most commentary about the BT/EE deal has focused on the advance it represents for BT in the so-called “quad play” (landline/mobile/broadband/TV). I’m sure this is important to BT commercially, but it only emphasises traditional divisions. I’m not going to speculate how different parts of the communications and entertainment industries will specifically converge in future, but for the moment just want to note how the ground is shifting. We’ll know we’re in a different world when those old landline handsets have finally disappeared.
And it would be good if they could sort out the customer service along the way.