Lifestyle

It’s good to talk, unless you’re a BT customer

Getting rid of landlines means you can’t call 999 in a power cut unless you have a mobile. That’s not what I call progress

BT has come up with a brilliant way of stopping people phoning to complain when their broadband goes down. In future, if your broadband isn’t working, neither will your phone. This is because of something called Digital Voice that’s going to be rolled out across the BT network by the end of 2025.

Digital Voice doesn’t mean that everyone making phone calls will sound like robots, fun though that would be. It means that, instead of plugging your phone into the telephone socket in the wall, you plug it into the back of your “wireless router”. You know, the object that makes the wifi happen – it’s got a light showing if it’s working and a range of lights for the various ways it might not be. A rainbow of illumination by which you are informed that now is not a moment when you’ll be permitted to buy cinema tickets.

Obviously, this is an inconvenient development. You may not want to keep your home phone a wire’s length from your router. That may not be how your furniture is organised. Having said that, if your phones are those wireless handsets that live in charging cradles, it’s marginally less annoying because you only have to plug the “master” one of those into the router. The rest of the handsets can then soak in the invisible phoneability-juice that the main one has farted into the air (please excuse all the technical jargon). Thus you’ll still be able to phone people without being in the same room as the router. What a time to be alive!

However, if you’ve got what I like to call “normal phones”, then only one will work and that has to be tethered to the router. For each of the others, you’ll need a “Digital Voice Adapter” (you get one free and have to buy any others from BT) that then plugs in, not to the phone socket, but to a normal plug socket.

This is annoying in two ways: first, it uses up a plug socket, and they’re at a premium in this age of so many things needing charging. Second, it makes all the old phone sockets obsolete, like little wounds in the wall. BT isn’t going to be sending painter-decorators round to erase these defunct disfigurements that it induced us to fit. Maybe, in time, they’ll develop some charm and historical interest, like a Bakelite light switch or a servants’ bell, with particular cachet attached to those marked with the original British Telecom “T”, which date from the “Inphone” campaign of the early 1980s when the company was still in public ownership.

But those aren’t the main disadvantages. And neither is the irritating fact that, for some reason, you’ll now have to dial the full area code even when phoning people in the same town as you. No, the big problem with it is that the phone doesn’t work if your broadband doesn’t, which also means that, unlike all previous sorts of landline, it won’t work during a power cut. If the electricity network is down, you won’t be able to ring anyone, including 999. But then, who ever heard of an emergency happening during a power cut?

What does BT propose doing about this? In the instructions for the Digital Voice Adapter, it explains the new flaw that’s been introduced, adding: “So make sure you’ve got another way to call for help in an emergency.” Would shouting do?

On the “Digital Voice migration” FAQ section of BT’s website, down near the bottom, it discreetly mentions the same thing, saying: “If you do not have a mobile or alternative means to call 999 please contact us on 0800 800 150.” Of course you’d have to do that in advance of the power cut. Maybe they’d send you a mobile? The postal system still currently works without wifi.

What an admission of failure for a purveyor of landlines: make sure you’ve got a back-up phone. That’s like Ocado telling people to make sure they’ve got some food in. The landline was the back-up phone. Of late, that’s all it was there for: emergencies and ringing your own mobile when you’ve mislaid it.

But I get it. Landlines aren’t used much. It’s like telephone boxes. Last week, it was reported that more than 1,000 phone boxes in the UK didn’t have a single call made from them for the whole of last year. Telecommunications are changing and the vast majority of people have mobiles and so this new system probably won’t meaningfully harm connectivity. I don’t like it, but I can live with it.

What I can’t stand, however, is the way BT is presenting it to customers. I am aware of this because my landline was moved over to Digital Voice last week. This lamentable development was heralded by an email entitled “You’re good to go”. The message began by announcing, with eye-watering self-importance: “It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for.”

The website continues this theme, characterising a reduction in service, an inconvenience and a tedious requirement to plug things in differently, as if it were a massive boon. It poses the question “Do I have to pay extra for Digital Voice?” and answers it proudly in the negative. But what kind of beaten-down, self-loathing, Ryanair frequent flyer would ask such a question? Do I have to pay extra for the new thing that’s worse? No? A free worsening! Oh my stars!

There’s talk about marginal benefits “such as crystal-clear calls and the ability to block nuisance calls” and the nightmarish opportunity to buy new handsets with Amazon Alexa built in, but the basic pitch is that “upgrading to Digital Voice will have no impact on how you use your phone today”. Yet the scheme’s slogan is “Digital Voice. Your home phone, only better”. Surely “Your home phone, only sometimes it won’t work” would be more apt?

This vacuous positivity belies a deep-seated contempt for the customer. BT is attempting to extort gratitude from the people on whom this system, for which they did not ask, is being imposed. How gullible does it think we are? It is not safe to let powerful corporations speak to us like that.

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