Dealing With BT

I know I’ve posted about my ADSL problems in the past. Although I haven’t mentioned them since then, they have been lurking all the time and frequently re-appear, meaning the Internet is either painfully slow or unusable for days, even weeks. My normal ADSL speed is something around 4.5 to 6.5 Mb/s, I live about 1.5 miles from my exchange. That speed is not so bad, it’s the dropouts and the serious speed drops which are annoying, somewhere between 16Kb/s and 1.5Mb/s which made the Internet as it is today, full of flash and graphical adverts, pretty painful and almost unusable for geek purposes (ie downloading Linux isos, or updating machines, or installing an OS over a network). At the worst times, I just can’t connect for hours. Though that doesn’t happen that often, it did happen a couple of times at the weekend.

I think I’ve reported this to my ISP perhaps 5 or 6 times, possibly more. At one stage, my employer paid for a business phone line to be installed in my house with a business ADSL connection over it. When the engineer came, I explained the reasons why we were having this extra line and so, as the cable for the new line had two sets of wires in it, he replaced the cable into the house and ran both lines over the new cable. I got a consistent 7.5Mb/s with the same equipment for over a year until leaving my employer meant losing my business line. That’s an average of 2Mb/s faster than the good speed on my residential line.

After losing the business line, I went back to my old ISP (free activation, you see, the old connection had been ceased). And I’ve been having the same recurring problems ever since. I’ve tried 3 routers, 2 Linksys and a BT Business Hub, 4 or 5 microfilters, I’ve removed all of the extension cables from the house long ago and now it’s my ADSL router on a 1m cable and a single wired phone in a microfilter plugged into the BT master socket. I’ve already checked and I don’t have a bell wire, which is known to add noise to a line and is only of use to old phones which actually have a bell in them. BT will sell you a ‘noise reducing face-plate’, which simply disconnects the bell wire for around 10 GBP.

So anyway, last time I was having real problems was around 4 or 5 months ago, I went through the usual ISP support/BT fault/submitting speed tests routine and although I was able to demonstrate the appalling line speed, I ultimately came up empty handed. The only remaining option was to have BT send an engineer to perform tests at my house, with the risk of being charged 150 GBP if they found nothing wrong, but since I know my line is noisy, I can hear it pop and crackle and scratch with just a phone plugged in, no DSL equipment, I was pretty confident. My man turned up, and he was an incredibly nice guy, but couldn’t find any problems. As I explained the now ceased business line didn’t have any of the problems with the same equipment that my residential line had, he simply went to the exchange and switched the cables over, probably in no officially recorded way, meaning that my residential line was now running over the cables which served the business line. I led a happy life from then on.

That was until about 2 weeks ago when I came home to find a parking fine, a card telling me to submit a gas meter reading or get an estimated bill and some unrelated alarming news which I had to share with my parents. As freephone numbers aren’t free from a mobile phone, I picked up my otherwise unused land-line to call the parking and gas people. I never use my landline for anything other than calling numbers which cost more from a mobile and for receiving calls from people who don’t have mobile phone contracts (ie my mother), everybody else uses my mobile number. My landline had no dial tone so I reported a fault with BT. I got a call a day or so afterwards to tell me that they had done some tests from outside of my property and have fixed the fault. I got home and still had no dial-tone, so I called the engineer back, I explained that I had 2 lines in my house and that an engineer had previously switched the wires at the exchange as I’d had so many problems, he said this probably explained the hassle they had finding the fault and asked me to try the other line, I did and I had a dial-tone, so I was back on the old residential line and my ADSL problems have returned. At this point, I’ve had to disconnect my telephone so I’m able to use the Internet. I have the same problems with 3 different phones and 3 different routers ad nauseum.

After the issues became pretty acute over the weekend, I called BT yesterday morning to discuss the issue with them. The wiring outside my house, from the telegraph pole to the box at the end of the road and from there on to the exchange is almost certainly pretty old, probably anywhere between 20 and 50 years old, I think my house was built in the 1920′s. Since the cable from my house to the pole and the master socket had been replaced about 18 months ago and my equipment has no problems on the other line, I’m pretty sure there’s something wrong with the cabling between the pole and the exchange for my residential line. As I said, with just a phone plugged in, my line is really noisy, at bad times, I can barely hear the person on the other end.

I wanted to explain the issue to them and have them conclude to either do something about the cabling, put somebody with some technical understanding on the case to diagnose the cause of the problems or otherwise just decide that they would solve the problem by moving my line officially from the residential line to what was my business line.

The person who answered put me through to customer services in India. I personally have no problem with Indian call centre workers, but I was relieved to be put through to support in the UK as I find Indian call centres to have a lot of background noise, making the person on the other end hard to hear and the accents difficult to understand. The next person I spoke to refused repeatedly to allow me to explain the issue and said that he couldn’t understand what my issue had to do with my phone line. At least twice I asked him if he would stop interrupting me and allow me to explain the issue, when he didn’t I explained that I was getting pretty annoyed with him and the fourth time I put the phone down. He called back twice, the first time, I ignored it because I was still simmering, the second I answered it as I’d calmed down a little, I realised that he would keep calling and that I wouldn’t get anywhere without speaking to him. He said that he was sorry but we seem to have gotten cut off for some reason, I bluntly told him that I had put the phone down on him because he kept interrupting me. No doubt I now have a ‘rude or difficult customer’ mark on my customer records.

After allowing me to cut to the chase and explain that I can’t use my phone because it makes the Internet go off and I need the Internet more than the phone, he put me through to another support department. I briefly explained the problem and given my problems describing the nature of the issue with the last person, I said that ultimately I would like to move my residential line to use the wiring which served the business line I once had. The lady explained that it would cost 122.50 GBP. Why? The wiring is already here. I already know that from a technical point of view all they need to do is switch the wires at the exchange, they just have to record it in their systems too. I think at this point, I used the word ridiculous and asked whether it was a joke about 3 times each. The lady explained that it was a standard charge. I asked who it was standard to, I was pretty sure that it was standard only to BT, which makes it not standard at all, but proprietary to BT. She didn’t answer, she just asked whether I wanted to go ahead, I said no. She said that for ADSL problems I would have to speak to my ISP, since my ISP wasn’t BT. I neglected to point that out that I had repeatedly done so as I was still pretty much flabbergasted.

The problem is you see, for the benefit of people from outside of the UK, that in the old days, BT built and ran the telephone network and were owned by the UK government. In the 1980′s, the ruling Conservative party government, headed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decided to modernise Britain by privatising most of the government run utilities, like the gas, electric and phone companies, to increase competition and thus performance and no doubt to wrestle political power away from the workers’ unions which generally funded and proivided the backbone of support for the main opposition party, Labour. Despite privatisation, BT still own the telecommunications network almost exclusively, a few other companies set up their own networks, but none of them took off. Mercury Communications was the most notable but was eventually absorbed into it’s parent company, Cable and Wireless. In the 1990′s a separate telecoms industry developed, using cable technology, headed primarily by Telewest an NTL which has since bought Cable and Wireless. BT still had an almost complete stranglehold on the traditional PSTN/copper wire telephone network and dial-up Internet connections. Though you can get dial-up and more recently ADSL from any number of companies, your supplier would still be supplying you with a connection from BT Wholesale since BT own all of the exchanges. Your alternative would be to use cable from whichever supplier covered your area. A few years ago, Telewest, with it’s consumer broadband division since re-branded as Blueyonder, bought NTL and the combined company was then bought up by Virgin to become Virgin Media.

Still with me? Ultimately that means BT still own all of the copper telephone network and you either get ADSL from them via a reseller or you get cable. Since I live just outside the cable area, literally by about a mile or 2, cable is no option for me and 3G Internet is still extortionately expensive for such an unsuitably small bandwidth allowance which I could blow in a busy evening, I’m stuck with a BT phone line and an ADSL connection from BT Wholesale. In any case, I’m in a 3G dead spot. The problem with BT is that they are a telephone company and their ‘bailiwick’, to quote an American phrase, is the phone network, they were caught completely unaware by the explosion of the Internet and then broadband, even today, they are still catching up. The long vaunted BT 21CN (21st Century Network), which will bring fibre to the home, is still about 18 months away from being enabled in my area and 21CN doesn’t support IPv6 (yet). So long as your phone works, they don’t care. The Internet is a secondary service. If the Internet doesn’t work, they don’t care unless your phone doesn’t work either. For Internet problems, you have to go to your ISP, who have to go to BT.

A few years ago Ofcom, the UK communications watchdog, nailed BT to the cross and told them to allow other companys to access the telephone exchanges to install their own equipment. The result is what is known as Local Loop Unbundling or LLU. LLU providers are generally quicker to market with newer ADSL technologies than BT Wholesale, consequently LLU providers have been doing 24 Mb ADSL 2+ for a couple of years while I think BT are only just rolling it out. Sadly my exchange is supplied by only 2 LLU providers, none of which do static IP addresses, which as an IT professional I need (I have firewall rules and host servers at home and so on). In any case, my ISP offered to upgrade me to a 24Mb service and then told me my existing line wouldn’t support it, though my former business line would, so officially, I can’t use 24 Mb, unbundled or not.

So, to boil all of this down:

  • On my existing line, my phone and ADSL connection are not usable at the same time.
  • BT won’t fix the problem because they won’t investigate it any further than they already have and my phone line is capable of making phone calls, which means their network works in their eyes. The Internet is unimportant and they’re not going to replace the stretch of cabling between my telegraph pole and the box at the end of the road or my exchange, just for me.
  • My ADSL provider can’t fix the problem since it just gets forwarded to BT.
  • Since BT don’t care, I have to diagnose the problems myself.
  • I can’t get cable.
  • 3G is too expensive, the bandwidth limit is too low to make it an option (around £30 for 5 GB per month) and I live in a 3G dead spot.

This leaves me with 4 choices:

  1. Pay 122.5 GBP  to BT to switch the phone lines over, probably pay my ISP for the migration too.
  2. Get rid of my BT line and try to use 3G instead.
  3. Pay thousands to get a leased line.
  4. Move house.

Not too much to choose from there since 2, 3 and 4 are completely out of the question. I recall reading somewhere else, that since the rollout of ADSL, ordinary people have had to become experts in telecommunications and PPP protocols just to be able to argue with their ISP and BT about their service problems. Never been more true and I’m technically minded. No doubt, housewives across the land with useless ADSL connections are just getting ushered quietly away and told that it’s not BT’s fault.

BT are slowly moving towards replacing parts the existing copper network with ‘fibre to the home’, or at least to the box on the end of the street, something which should have been done 5 years ago, top cable speeds are currently double the ADSL 2+ top speeds and maybe 8 or 9 times that of the fastest ADSL Max product which are notoriously advertised at up to a theoretical 8Mb, which as we know, nobody can ever get. Virgin Media are now trialling 200 Mb/s cable. It’s not all rosy on cable though, Virgin Media’s support are widely reputed to be dreadful and their network management techniques are equally questionable.

My apologies for making you sit through all of this boring drivel, I just need somebody to rant at, almost as much as I need somebody at BT to help solve the issue. I think another call to my ISP and to BT is in order.

UPDATE 15/07/2009: It turns out that when you cancel a telephone line with BT, for a residential line they ‘close’ the line, but leave the equipment connected at the exchange. For a business line, they ‘cease’ it and disconnect any equipment at the exchange. The cost of reconnecting a former business line is therefore the same as installing a new telephone line, which means I don’t save money by simply asking for a new 3rd telephone line altogether.

My existing ISP charge £46 for a migration, though they would consider waiving it should I agree to minimum contract period.

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14 Responses to Dealing With BT

  1. Roger says:

    I suspect I’m about to enter your world. After enjoying pretty reliable cable for the past half dozen years or so, I’m moving to a much nicer place… but where there is no cable and the local exchange isn’t even LLU enabled. Won’t be able to get better than “up to” 8Mbps for an estimated two years. Woo.

  2. BobCFC says:

    Fortunately in my area I can get Be Unlimited (recently bought by 02). They have their own equipment in the exchange so were able to offer 24mbps ADSL2+ for ages while all the BT resellers were stuck at 8mbps.

    The best thing about Be Unlimited is that it is UNCAPPED.. and I mean it, I have taken the piss before over 100gb a month till I ran out of disks. Not bad for £17.50/m

    I used to really suffer from throttling and traffic shaping with virgin.net… switching was the best thing ever. Just a shame you have to be lucky and live near one of their exchanges

  3. Hermes says:

    Telewest was never rebranded as blueyonder – blueyonder was a sub-brand of Telewest, and the name of Telewest’s ISP.

    H

  4. Adam says:

    Ahh ADSL is not so bad if you get a good line to be honest. For most people ADSL works fine, just that when it doesn’t and it’s not your equipment’s fault, you have pretty much nowhere else to go.

    I’m only a mile and a half from the exchange, I should be able to get around 7.5Mb/s, the problem I have is the line quality, but since I’m able to make phone calls, BT don’t care.

  5. Nightwish says:

    Egads, I almost thought you lived in Portugal.

  6. MJ Ray says:

    Why the hell haven’t you started a formal complaint yet? This looks like gouging and I’ve complained for less (it took six weeks to get a basic phone line installed here).

    If TalkTalk/CPW are shown as an LLU provider for your exchange (I didn’t spot which one it is), some resellers can do static IPs and my work is an agent for one at http://www.software.coop/products/phone/

    I’m currently having very different noise problems which I’m now wondering if they’re connected to a neighbour’s motobike sparks not being shielded properly.

  7. Fab says:

    What do you suppose would happen if, say, an unknown vandal would cut your line outside your property in, let’s say, four to five places? They would have to fix the breakage and test the entire line thoroughly, right?

    BTW, working part-time for an ISP, I can tell you that ADSL works great if the provider actually cares for quality control on their lines.

  8. TOP JAZZ says:

    I’m really not that surprised at your ADSL issues. The fact that you say you hear popping and other noises when on the phone is all that’s needed to see that you would obviously have ADSL issues too. According to your story, you were being sold on some inside wiring B.S. and that was supposed to address the issue. The problem with that is you made no mention of anyone checking the line outside to see if the problem was in or out, in the first place.
    I work for the telephone company and the NID is the first place to check on DSL, POTS or anything else before cutting up wires inside. Obviously, if it took an engineer to finally give you a good outside line to the C.O., then the fix was clear and should go back to that line for a permanent remedy.
    Sure, you may be able to surf on the bad line at times but a thorough check at the NID would have revealed FEC & CRC errors, as well as low noise margins. The get worse worse with moisture: Rain, Morning dew, Night mist, Dripping AC water drain, etc. A qualified technician would have never even set foot in your house until you at least had to service coming to it.
    But lets go back a sec. Don’t get the term “Line” confused with service. A phone and/or DSL line is just 2 wires that we call a pair. The engineer did nothing more than give you a good pair. It matters not whether the pair is used for business or residential service. You just need that good pair again so that you can get the decent performance the business service had on that pair.
    You’re lucky – you obviously have a good pair coming to your house. The problem for you is communicating the need to be on that pair for your service – case closed.
    So re read this post, call them back and be very specific about it. If not, you’ll continue a very annoying volley between you(unable to adequately troubleshoot your problem) and customer service(unable to adequately troubleshoot your problem). The techs are useless if they need an engineer just to come out and change a pair. So just tell them what you want.

  9. alex says:

    Have you looked at someone like XLN Telecom for your Phone line? I switched to them a year ago having been utterly frustrated by BT’s customer service and have found them much better customer service.

    Haven’t had the same problems as you though, and they use BT’s lines, but you may never have to speak to BT again. Maybe it is worth a call to see if they can help you out before you switch (BT will charge a reconnection fee if you decide to go back).

  10. Graham Bleach says:

    21CN is basically a reworking of the BT network core and won’t bring fibre to the home, since it won’t touch the exchange -> home part of the network.

  11. Pingback: Adam Sweet’s Blog » Blog Archive » It’s Been a Long Time

  12. Martin says:

    BT really are just awful, we’ve recently been having all sorts of problems with latency fluctuation, bandwidth strangling and simply being cut off for a day from time to time.

    Call after call they refer us to Virgin, who refer us to BT, and all I can get out of anyone is a suggestion that I replace ‘x’ item of equipment and see if it’s any better! So far I’ve tried the connection on 4 different laptops and 1 desktop, I’ve disconnected all of my other home phone lines other than the main one, and I’ve also moved from wireless to wired ethernet (which involved drilling holes through the floor and feeding cable through) to find that it made no difference at all!

    I’ve also looked into problems at my exchange, not my nearest one though, aparently I’m connected to one twice as far away as my closest one, which is 3kM away as it is!

    The closer one is 24Mbps enabled, but for some reason I’m not connected to that one, I’m connected to the steam powered one half a world away that can barely churn out 200kbps.

    But it’s ok, because my phone still works.

  13. fred says:

    I had no end of problems with BT regarding speed and thier innability to fix what was a faulty line as it would mean ripping up roads.

    In the end I jumped ship to VirginMedia for both phone and internet and all is now very rosey.

    The cost is virtually the same and I actually get 20mbps that I pay for (I average 2.4megabytes a second!) rather than the 2.5mbps that I got on my ‘up to 20′ setup from BT.

    As for the usage allowances they are very reasonable and don’t exist at all on the 50mbps package (costs a lot more though of course).

    The best thing is there is no messing around with filters etc because the phone and internet etc break into seperate feed cables outside the house and so can be routed anywhere.

    Lastly as the system is fibre-optic the the street junction box it doesn’t suffer from all the syncronisation and ‘oops lets slow down your connection as it looks like you had some transmission problems’ nonsense that you get with ADSL.

    I used to have my BT speed get to about 4mbps and then something would happen with the line and it would instantly drop to 2.5mbps and take 2 months to get back to 4mbps again. I dreaded if I needed to do any electrical DIY as it would mean turning my modem off which again knocked the speed back down again.

    Go cable man it’s the only way!

  14. Adam Sweet says:

    Quote from the article:

    “Since I live just outside the cable area, literally by about a mile or 2, cable is no option for me”

    I would have gone to cable 3 years ago but there is no cable in my area :(

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