A Travel Vignette

From a British Travel Diary (1987)

British Telecom: Modern Day  "Flintstones?"

A Bob Djurdjevic Column, September 1987

LONDON - The PCs may be taking over the world, but some international telecoms still resemble the bumbling Fred and Barney from the Flintstones -- the stone age cartoon people. The Flintstones even had a TV set in their living room. But, they still lived in a cave. Similarly, the international telecoms are talking big about participating in global communications. Their actual service, however, is still in the dark ages compared to that in the U.S. The telecoms' fragmentation along the (small) national boundaries may be one of the reasons for it. Another is the fact that the "PTTs" (Post, Telephone & Telegraph) are, in fact, government-controlled monopolies, lacking the competitive drive which the 1982 AT&T divestiture injected into the American market.

Maybe that was also why IBM's former European chief, Kaspar Cassani, has been frequently stressing the "great opportunities" which the European telecommunications market offers. Indeed, when you're up to your neck in crocodiles, you have a great opportunity to improve your situation. American businesses, meanwhile, are likely to gain ground on their overseas competitors, in part, thanks to the improved productivity which a homogeneous, competitive telecommunications market delivers.

By the way, the preceding observations are not theoretical. They are based on personal experiences during my overseas travels, this in 1987.

What Toshiba Giveth, British Telecom Taketh Away

Ever since early 1987, when a Wall Street analyst-friend gave me an impromptu demo in a busy bar at the Helmsley Hotel in New York, I have been traveling literally everywhere with my little computer laptop. The curious glances of the stewardesses notwithstanding, this little laptop has made a great contribution to this writer's personal productivity. But, much of the productivity which the laptop has given me was taken away by the numerous problems in dealing with local telephone companies.

Take my 1987 trip to London, for example. I was staying at the Sheraton Park Tower, a modern hotel by European standards, located in the middle of the London's fashionable Belgravia district, where two-bedroom apartments sell for one million pounds or more. By choosing a hotel of "American heritage" (Sheraton) which was well situated, I was hoping to improve the odds of being able to transmit our research reports back to the U.S. Not so, I am afraid.

After a considerable effort and perseverance, I was nevertheless able to overcome the numerous hurdles thrown my way by the Australian, Canadian and Swedish telecoms -- witness the reports transmitted from those countries. Finland and Yugoslavia, on the other hand, were a cinch. I made my transmissions from Helsinki and Belgrade respectively on the first try, as if I were calling from New York. Well, come to think of it, maybe not quite like New York. I've had problems there, too, in some hotels (e.g., Westchester county's "Rye Town Hilton") which programmed their PBXs to prevent (?!) guests from attaching their computers to the telephone lines.

And so, despite a noble effort by one of the Sheraton Park Tower's employees, I was handily defeated by the hotel's and the British Telecom's archaic telephone system. After ten days (!) of trying to transmit the report from England, we ended up publishing it from our home office -- upon my return from London. This is all the more ironic, since London prides itself for being a cosmopolitan city, and Sheraton Park Tower as a first class hotel.

It all started about a week before the trip, when I had my staff send a telex to the London hotel asking for a British-to- North American telephone jack adapter. The first answer we got was that the jacks were the same, and thus no adapter was needed. I said I didn't believe it, not after the trouble I'd had in other countries coming up with one. Then, the hotel asked to see what the adapter looks like. So, we FAXed them a drawing of one.

Despite such an advance notice, however, when I arrived at the hotel, the communications manager asked to see the "American jack." When I showed it to him, he said he'd never seen anything like it, and asked me if I was sure that was really an American jack!? I looked at him in dibelief. It was early in the day, and I still had enough sense of humor left in me just to laugh at the stupidity of his question rather than bite his head off.

And such a response paid off. The young man (let's call him Kevan) seemed to have taken it as a matter of personal, if not the British national pride, to see to it that I successfully transmit that report to the U.S. Three days later, he had an electrician cut off the American modular jack from one end of my chord and install the British equivalent instead. At least, the hardware compatibility problem was solved!

But alas, the hotel telephones did not have the modular jacks. "That's what my job here is," Kevan explained apologetically. "To upgrade the hotel's telephone system." Meanwhile, the existing hotel telephones were hard-wired into the wall. The operators, rather than the PBXs, did the switching of calls. But, as I said, Kevan was not to be deterred. He ordered a second, direct line to be installed in my hotel room equipped with a modular jack.

In the meantime, he suggested we try the only other jack at the hotel, which had been previously installed in one of the function rooms. And so, with minutes to spare before the bride and the groom arrived, Kevan and I located the jack underneath a table with a big flower vase on top. As the elegantly dressed waiters looked on, their eyebrows raised as we crawled under the table to make the connection.

The moment of truth was nearing. Finally the dial tone. I instruct the Toshiba modem to dial the number. Scratch, hiss, scratch... Then, the pulse dialing begins. A few seconds go by. Another scratch. Then, the familiar single-tone North American ring. Another hiss. Finally, the long-awaited high-pitch tone -- an indication that a connection with my Phoenix-based host computer was being established. Just as I was about to enter the password, however, the British Telecom drops the line. "NO CARRIER" message appears on the screen. Several other attempts -- the same outcome.

"I've got to go to a meeting now," I said, "but please make sure that other line is installed in my room this afternoon." Kevan promised he'd see to it. The waiters, who were already starting to fidget impatiently, seemed relieved as I started to pack the computer. The wedding may proceed.

When I returned from my meeting, the second line had still not been installed. Kevan said he'd been after the British Telecom all day, but they claimed that they had an emergency elsewhere in London, and did not have a spare technician. "I get the feeling that they are in a perpetual state of emergency," I replied. "What guarantee do you have that they'll be here even tomorrow." He didn't have any. As a single-vendor customer, all Kevan could do was promise that he'd keep after them.

The next day, of course, I had to leave town to visit some clients outside London. When I returned from my trip two days later, I found out that it wasn't until late afternoon of the second day that the line had been finally installed. It was day six since my arrival in London. My report could have been in Phoenix, Arizona, even if I had mailed it!

Immediately, I hook up the computer modem to the line and try dialing again. Crossing my fingers for good luck, I await the high-pitch response from my Phoenix system. When I finally hear it, I feel like shouting for joy. The password goes through without a glitch, too. Then I begin to transmit the BULLETIN. "Oh please, don't drop the line now," I keep whispering as if anybody from the British Telecom could hear me. "FILE TRANSMITTED SUCCESSFULLY" flashes the message on my screen. "Hurray," I shout out loud.

I then proceed to transmit the tables and charts which went with the text of the report. About a third of the way into the first table, I hear that ominous scratchy sound. The line drops. "NO CARRIER" Toshiba informs me matter-of-factly as if I didn't already know. I try dialing again. And again, and again...Not once during the next three days was I ever able to reestablish the connection. "I am sorry, Sir," Kevan explained politely, "but the BT are saying that they are having trouble with the lines in this area. They are working on it."

"Aren't they always," I replied in disgust, wishing that millions of Americans could be there to see how lucky they are in comparison. "One day, Kevan, maybe I'll make you famous," I continued. "It would be a shame not to write a story about you, the Sheraton Park Tower, and the British Telecom telephone system, and share my experiences this week with other unsuspecting American business people before they travel to London."

Well, now I have. And Kevan is also getting a complimentary copy of this column. He, like I, had met his Waterloo -- the British Telecom.


The original publication of this column by Annex Research seemed to have caused quite a stir in Britain. An October 1987 Computer Weekly editorial "Make Someone Irritated" led to another November 1987 editorial which included an angry response by the British Telecom ("Faulty Phone, Illegal Shock"). The second editorial concluded tongue-in-cheek, "meanwhile, the wanted posters for Ol' Bob are probably going up in ports and airports and post offices, his name is going on to MI5's international terrorist list, etc. No one likens BT with the Flintstones and gets away with it."

Well about a year later, I stayed again at the same London Sheraton Park Hotel. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the BT had updated both the telephone line and the equipment. So to be fair, I wrote again about the positive experience this time, offering praise to BT. In a December 1988 column entitled "BT Leaves The Stone Age," Computer Weekly printed my letter which concluded with "welcome to the modern world, BT! And keep it up, will you?" The letter was accompanied by the enclosed "cave man" cartoon...

logolittle.jpg (9114 bytes)

Back to "Travel Vignettes" header