Billing Agents and more BT grumbles... 2008

 The organisation of basic utilities in the UK is really dreadful. Take electricity for example. The public have to pay, not only for electricity, but many have to pay for the running of a billing agent. Electricity is sold to the billing agent at "wholesale" price and they just pass on that price plus whatever they can squeeze out of their customers to pay huge salaries for their managers and interest for the shareholders of the billing companies (and the minimum wage of two or three people at their call centre). The terms and conditions of the billing agents are often written in microscopic grey print on off-white or coloured paper and sometimes even the rates you have to pay are shrouded in mystery. All of course pretend that they and they alone, are cheapest.

A big problem for the public and a huge benefit for the actual supplier is the fact that the latter can hide behind the billing agent and get away scot-free when they give poor service.
This is the situation with the telephone service in the UK. One can choose a broadband supplier and, until anything goes wrong, you can benefit from the service. However, if anything goes wrong what do you do?

We are plagued with a noisy telephone line. Not all the time, mainly when it's raining. After a day of rain the crackling on the line gets bad. So bad, in fact that one cannot easily use the phone, let alone broadband which needs a perfect line in order to work at its best.
I rang BT, our broadband supplier. Our telephone line is poor; I tell them after waiting for what seems like eternity in a queue. It's no good whining to us the lady at the other end says (or words to that effect); you pay your line rental to the Post Office.

One day my wife in a moment of weakness, feeling sorry for our Post Office, which was under threat of closure, switched from BT to Post Office Home Phone.
I rang the Post Office, and of course had to wait in another long queue listening to very crackly music.

After about 20 minutes I got through and was able to explain that our line was faulty. "Who is that speaking?", asked the rather abrupt women at the other end. I told her and she said she couldn't talk to me because it was my wife that was the account holder.

Luckily my wife arrived home at that instant and I put her on. She figured out the reason for the call without being prompted and explained our predicament, but after she had been transferred to another person, whose voice was quieter than the crackling, the line went dead. Another 30 minutes wasted.

I tried again and after another interminable wait, I managed to get through to an engineer. Do you want to talk to my wife I asked? "Not really", he said in a puzzled voice. He did a line test and agreed that the line was poor. Not surprising as I had to ask him to repeat what he was saying because of the ear splitting crackling.

We agreed Friday PM, which was three days away (being the best they could arrange) for a BT engineer to visit me.
Late on Friday, with a crackly line and no improvement, I called back the Post Office people and this time spoke, not to an Irish engineer but a Polish engineer. I suggested it was a bit late for the BT chap to call and he looked in his records and explained that the engineer wasn't going to call as the line had been tested and found to be perfect.
What about this awful crackling I asked? Maybe we should make another appointment he suggested? When I asked when that would be he said he couldn't say and went off to type on his keyboard for about ten minutes, emerging every so often to apologise for the delay.
Eventually he resurfaced and said it was all done and could he transfer me to Customer Services or something. I agreed and eventually I got through to a young lady who immediately said she couldn't talk to me. I handed the phone to my wife and she managed to get the young lady to talk to me instead.
I explained our predicament. Wouldn't it have been a good idea to include me in the loop about sorting out my line problem I asked? Yes she said.
I'd like to discuss compensation I told her. She agreed to get someone to call us back to sort something out but they haven't bothered yet.

The next morning the line was perfect. It has stopped raining so maybe it's just because of that? Maybe an engineer worked all night tightening up wires and refitting waterproof covers? Who knows? Let's see what happens when it rains again?

I did a "quiet line test" by calling 17070 and selecting Option 2, and it really was as quiet as the grave.

My Home Hub tells me it's only running a download speed of about 900k instead of the usual 4,700k so it obviously hasn't discovered that the line has gone quiet yet. I'll have to unplug and replug it's power supply.

I hate to say it but maybe it would be better to switch back to BT for our line rental and cut out the billing agent layer?

Incidentally, this crackling problem can sometimes get confusing as if one is using the phone it has the effect of damping down the peak level of the crackles and this can sometimes let the broadband signal synchronise. You explain on the phone that there isn't a solid green light and suddenly there is and you think the fault has cleared. Hang up and the green light reverts to flashing again.

You can test your system by systematically unplugging stuff and dialling 17070. This might show up a faulty filter or a faulty extension phone.

Postscript.... Feb/March 2008

I'm carrying out some housekeeping on the website and I spotted this unresolved grumble about BT. As I try to always resolve problems, albeit sometimes only after years.... I thought I'd say how this one went..

A BT engineer turned up with a trainee in tow one day after numerous complaints about problems with my telephone line and Home Hub. I must say that BT do their best to avoid sending out an engineer because they threaten to charge you loads of money if the fault turns out to be anything other than their phone line or master socket. After confirming that the fault was indeed in this category as best I could, I insisted the engineers came and resolved the problem.

My phone line goes from a post outside in the lane, threads through branches of a large tree to my garage roof and then to the eaves of the house, where it disappears under the roof to the loft. The engineer wanted to check the master socket but that wasn't possible as we don't had one fitted. We still have the small green terminal box fitted when the line was first installed. "Let's see that", the engineer asked. "I'm afraid you'll have to lift the floorboards", I said, because we had a loft conversion and the box is now under the floor.

"I think we'll fit a new master socket", the chap proclaimed. Next the pair checked the wires from the pole to the garage. That's OK was the verdict. Next the line from the garage roof. "Oh dear", the engineer said. "That's your trouble, the terminations are corroded. The wire should have been replaced donkeys years ago as it doesn't even meet 1985 standards".

The trainee engineer then proceeded to install a new wire and a new master socket. The latter has an integral broadband filter and after several weeks of experience with this, and the repaired wire, all my broadband faults have magically gone away. The download speed remains at 4.5Megs and the crackling in wet weather has gone too. Not only that but the Home Hub, which was very temperamental has become perfectly docile. It hasn't locked up once since the new wire was fitted.

I have a theory. When the line was very crackly the modem must have been responding to what was effectively random noise and presumably some of this noise, once in a while, had the form of code, perhaps in the timing of consecutive noise pulses, that caused the modem to enter parts of its firmware that were unexpected and probably never debugged. Certainly the only way to unlock the modem was to unplug its power. I've seen this effect before. Take an inoccuous thing like my microprocessor controlled battery charger. One in three times when you plug it in to the mains it will show nonsense on its display or make a loud beeping. Even my new Toshiba TV has its weak points. Press certain combinations of buttons on its remote control and you have to switch off the set, and switch it oin again, before it will change channels.

Funny thing, but I asked the BT engineer that fixed my line what he thought of the BT broadband phone, but he misunderstood and thought I'd referred to the Home Hub. Terrible he said, I've had four of them and I still have broadband problems. Maybe he ought to call out a BT engineer to check his line?

Now nearly 7 years later in December 2014

Things have changed here and we took out a contract with BT for their Television service. Not such a good idea because the infrastructure wasn't up to the job when they rolled out the service. However, things improved and we got the hang of how to use the facilities. We paid for two of their offerings. Films and Sport and we were able to watch (initially) one of about a dozen or so films over the internet. My wife likes baseball, and it was for this reason that we ventured into BT Vision because Channel 5 had stopped their baseball coverage. At first we watched Setanta using a special card plugged into our BT Vision box. Soon Setanta was no more and was replaced by a version of ESPN. That in turn disappeared and we were given BT Sport then BT Sport 1 and 2. Recently BT (in an effort to win more broadband customers) said that the new sports service was free to broadband customers. Hang on though... what about or subscription to BT Vision? This included Sport so now shouldn't the subscription be reduced to half? True we still had films to watch free of charge, but we shouldn't have to pay for Sport if it was now free? Alas no.

Now in December 2014 I received a letter from BT. It said that soon BT Sport would be Internet only and my broadband wasn't good enough to receive it. So, summing up... we're paying for BT Sport except that it's free but we're advised we can't receive it anyway. The solution BT suggested was to book a free engineer visit. They were sure he could work some magic and transform our broadband quality so we could get BT Sport over the Internet.

The engineer arrived and spent the whole morning with us. Of course, working for BT, he had no idea why he was visiting us. I showed him the letter and he proceeeded to test our line. "I tested the line last night and got 5.8MBytes download", I said. He repeated the test with a fancy box and got 5.3MBytes. After fitting a new Mk3 Openreach faceplate to our master socket, remarking it would not improve matters one jot, he repeated the test and was proved right.

I've been offered another solution though. Part fibre-part copper which will increase our broadband speed to 18-24MBytes. It's £30 per month compared with £17. I queried this and was given a second quote which is slightly lower but means we would need to transfer line rental payments from the Post Office to BT. I checked and we're paying £13 to the Post Office, but to BT we'd have to pay £16 per month. This all seems to me to be a rip off. Oh, and did I mention that our free webspace (for my website) was withdrawn and our free Internet phones were disconnected. Did the bill go down.. no the charges were increased.

Can anyone remember when the GPO ruled and directory enquiries was free. In those far off days signalling over GPO private lines was a huge 2400 bits per second, now over ordinary residential lines 6MBytes is commonplace... that's around 60Mbits per second an increase is speed, over 1972 speeds, of 25,000 times. If this had been forecast in 1972 the forecaster would have been locked up in a loony bin....


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