Cable and Wireless Watch was 1

Looking through some old mail, I realised that 25 May 1997 was when the first sign that Childe Graham in the Yellow Tower might be up to no good appeared. So 25 May is as appropriate a day as any on which to celebrate Cable and Wireless Watch's birthday.

The Watch was one year old then: better it had not been born at all. But something had to be done: tens of thousands of people signed up to Videotron with the belief that unmetered cable-cable calls were indeed a 'permanent feature' as they had been told. They couldn't have cared less about the minutiae of contracts or, indeed, that Videotron's life had been signed away to CWC long before June 1997 and, as it turns out, even before I joined up in late 1996.

The Watch traces a story which no novelist would have dared invent: twists, turns, incoherence, evasions, falsehoods, poor communications, unanswered letters, unsound advertising, libel (retracted in the nick of time), misbilling ... All from a completely artificial company - the by-product of smashing four existing companies together and hoping that something viable crawled from the wreckage.

CWC's reasons, such as they were, for removing unmetered calls have been systematically demolished. They cannot say that ex-Videotron subscribers will save money by moving to a CWC tariff; they cannot say that their new billing system is unable to support unmetered calls; they cannot say that their network cannot handle them; their sister company has said that they are a good thing; in fact, they have far more reasons for extending them to their other subscribers than removing them. People moving house have contacted me many times, often in desperation, to ask whether they will be able to keep their unmetered calls. I can hardly imagine anyone getting worked up about one hundred free minutes per month.

In the end no-one can stop CWC attempting to take away unmetered local calls. But whether they can make the removal stick is another matter. There are solicitors and barristers who have been told what is happening and now keep themselves informed; if things get difficult, quite apart from legal action, we will arrange another demonstration outside either Red Lion Square or the new CWC HQ in Watford and there will be more than the BBC reporting on it.

In fact, the demonstration was the best thing the Watch ever did. A lot of people, including myself, had misgivings beforehand, and three hours of events took about three weeks to set up. But the demonstration showed that we are not a League of Nations: we said we'd do something and we did it. It was a spectacular success; the BBC broadcast an excellent report and the concept of unmetered calls was brought right inside CWC headquarters. We handed out nearly a thousand leaflets that day, and the sight of CWC staff watching in their hundreds from top floor windows was unforgettable.

As for the second year? I hope everything is resolved without the 'giant legal smashup' which, to be honest, I have expected from the first day: the CWC attitude seems to have softened to some extent but there is no resolution. I also hope that there is no need for a second birthday celebration.

Looking out from the wormhole, the most scandalous aspect of the whole affair is that there is nobody to shout 'You can't do that there 'ere!' There is nothing, bar the law and the media, between you or me and a cable company doing what it pleases; OFTEL - thus the Government - has effectively abdicated any responsibility to the consumer. In many ways the cable companies of this country are symptoms and the regulatory régime the cause; the wider issues are being explored by the Campaign for Unmetered Telecommunications.
Text by Alastair Scott

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