Author Archives: Alex Bloor
I sent an email to our BT account manager. I attached two call recordings. The message size in total was only about 30MB. Our mail systems regularly deal with multi-hundred MB attachments. I’m not even sure they have a limit as such.
SMTP error from remote mail server after MAIL FROM:<firstname.lastname@example.org> SIZE=44091640: host smtpb1.bt.com [22.214.171.124]: 552 5.3.4 Message size exceeds fixed maximum message size
Well thank you so much for that helpful, informative message, BT. Tell me it exceeds some mythical maximum size, but don’t tell me what that magical size is. Sigh.
Outside on the road, the familiar van was parked. Since I do love to post an amusing photo on FaceBook, no matter how small the audience that will “get” the joke, I snapped a picture of it and posted it with a caption of “Well that’s telephony and internet in Westerham f*cked then…”
I posted the photo to FaceBook at exactly 09:15. This time is important – there will be a test later.
I then drove to work, thinking no more about it. I have quite a long drive to do; around an hour usually. I work at an ISP called Andrews & Arnold. We are a small ISP with thousands of broadband customers around the UK. Declaring this interest will perhaps explain why I experience fear and dread whenever I see a Kelly van, or an OpenReach van, or any other contractor for BT.
Put simply – and it isn’t just me that thinks this – Kelly have a dreadful reputation in the industry. In our support department, scarcely a week goes by without several cases of lines mysteriously going down, only to later discover that an OpenReach engineer or a contractor to BT (such as Kelly) has “borrowed” our customer’s copper pair (the wires that link the customer’s master phone socket back to the exchange). This borrowing activity obviously kills our customer’s line – both for PSTN and ADSL/FTTC. It is then our problem to get a fault logged and an appointment booked. It is inconvenient and loss making for us to deal with. It is inconvenient for the customer.
Nobody wins. As an ISP, we are fairly well known for getting problems sorted. But these are problems that should never occur in the first place.
Let me run that situation by you again, because I guess to someone not in the industry, it probably sounds far fetched and crazy. But it is a very common (mal)practice :
- An engineer comes out to install a new phone line
- S/he needs to find a “spare pair” (of copper) to run the line back to the exchange
- S/he cannot easily identify which of many is a spare
SO either s/he :
- Doesn’t care, wants to get the job done and closed off, and just steals one
- Does improper tests, uses one that looks unused, but which in fact is still live
Why should we be picking up the support burden of this activity? It is a disgrace.
Regretably it is nearly always circumstancial; our customer vaguely recalls seeing a van and an engineer working near the cabinet, or we hear from the engineer that goes out to fix the broken service that it looks like the pair had been stolen… But by then it is too late to do anything about it; sometimes it is days later.
It was a text telling me my broadband line was down, and timed at 09:26 and 53 seconds. Uh oh. So my semi-joking (semi-serious) prediction on FaceBook was probably right. Just to remind, I posted my photo at 09:15 and just under 12 minutes later, my line went down.
Thinking that this was far too much of a co-incidence, I used our internal systems which interface directly with BT to do a copper line check from the exchange. Yep, sure enough, it was reporting a copper line fault; specifically a “Dis(connect) In Exchange”. So we did a fault report with OpenReach. OpenReach is the division of BT that we buy our lines from. This isn’t actually a terrible process and mostly works quite well. But it isn’t always fast, as an engineer appointment is usually required.
So I wondered if there might be some recourse directly with Kelly. It is important to note that we have no contract directly with Kelly. We simply buy our line from OpenReach, and any faults with it contractually are for OpenReach to sort out (even if they farm some of their work out to contractors such as Kelly).
But here was a pretty cut-and-dry example for assigning blame.
So I re-examined my photo, and realised that luckily I had not just captured the Kelly telephone number, but also the registration number of the van in question. I called the number and reported the problem; that an engineer had been working in my block of flats, that my line had been broken, almost certainly as a result of the engineer mis-using a copper pair being used for my line, and I wanted the engineer to undo what he had done. I was told I’d be called back later in the day. I don’t think the call was treated particularly seriously. And sure enough an hour or more later, I’d heard nothing.
I then had a sneakier idea. I called them again, but this time said the van was causing a problem in the street, and gave the registration number and said I needed to speak to the driver.
This got me through to the fleet manager, who, (rightly enough) unwilling to give me the mobile number of the engineer, was willing to call the engineer whilst I stayed on the line. After confessing that actually it wasn’t a road traffic problem but a technical one, and explaining my ISP affiliation (and saying that this was a common occurrence for us) he rang the engineer.
I only heard one side of the conversation. It sounded like the engineer knew what he had done, and seemed to be conceding that he’d need to go back and fix it! Progress!
The fleet manager was interested in my comments about how Kelly were perceived and said that he’d be interested in an email outlining the problems for onward discussion with other high level managers. He seemed unaware of Kelly’s reputation.
He also mentioned his broadband wasn’t very reliable, so I sent the following :
Hi there *******, Many thanks for talking with me earlier. I hope the engineer (I think his name was **** *****) manages to go back and fix my broken line later today; thanks again for making the appropriate call. It sounds like this may be a handy connection to have made for other reasons though. We (Andrews & Arnold) frequently have issues with work Kelly have done and genuinely without wishing to insult I do feel that Kelly have a bad name in the industry for reasons similar to the ones outlined. We have many examples where Kelly engineers have used copper pairs belonging to our customers to install lines for other end users; totally breaking our service. This has been confirmed to us by either our End User (reporting what BTOR say when the fault is fixed) or by engineers directly. It seems to me that it is quicker and easier to "create a fault" that in all probability another engineer, possibly from another company will need to fix, than to actually install another cable. And this is the nub of the problem. Pressed engineers will take shortcuts, especially when there are no real consequences, and they can close off a job nice and quickly. I'm really not exaggerating when I say we have dozens and dozens of examples of this going on. It is a problem with OpenReach as well. But it's more noticeable and more pronounced with Kelly. I attach a "FaceBook chronology" of this happening at my address in ***** Court, ***** Road, where your engineer was installing a line at Flat *, and in doing so, I assume, broke my line in Flat *. I partly attach this for your amusement, but also to demonstrate that I foretold the problem occurring at 09:15 and, sure enough, at 09:26:53 (approx 11 mins later) my foretelling was proven correct. Of course by then I was driving to work, and only learned of the outage when I arrived in the office and checked my texts. But I hope this (silly) example demonstrates my strong faith that Kelly will break phone lines! I predicted it would happen. And, of course, it did! Partly why we (Andrews & Arnold) are known for reliability is our dogged pursuit of things like this. Had the same information been provided us by a customer we'd have acted on it in the same way. If you are interested in an Internet connection where the people supporting it actually care enough to chase down those responsible for faults and get them fixed, please do have a look at our website www.aa.net.uk. As you can see from the text message, we monitor all our customer lines very pro-actively. Indeed, we send an echo down every single line, every second. ... We are a little more expensive than some, but you get what you pay for. Finally, if there is anything that can be done - in terms of us working with Kellys (despite the fact we have no direct contractual relationship) to help things improve, we'd be pleased to do so. Best regards, and many thanks again. Alex.
Not impolite, I hope you will agree. And the fact that he was interested in the problem was at least a bit impressive. I realise I called them Kellys (they are just “Kelly” singular) a few times. Oh well.
Later in the day I had a call letting me know that Kelly would come back and fix it later that day. This did seem a fairly clear admission of culpability to me. Still later in the day, I had a call from the (different) engineer who’d come and fix the first engineer’s mess. He said on the phone, which I have a call recording of, that the first engineer had indeed used my pair to install the new line for the upstairs flat.
So what I predicted would happen when I snapped the photo at 09:15 had, pretty much precisely, come true. The only difference between this and almost every other time was that this time I had enough evidence to force them to come back and put things right.
I was initially puzzled why access to my property would be needed to fix the fault. Of course, when the first engineer had disconnected my master socket, he hadn’t made it clear which wires in the box were mine. So the second engineer would need to plug a tone generator into my master socket to trace the pair in the box, and reconnect them. Once this was done, the line reconnected and all was well again.
At this point I should mention that I do not just have one ADSL line. I have two bonded, and only one was affected. I also have 3G backup available. Anybody who is serious and demands reliable Internet should have this type of redundancy in place. It is what we (at A&A) are specialists at providing.
So this might have been the end of the story. Not quite though. I asked the second engineer what had happened, and how my line had ended up being the sacrificial lamb. What he said had a worrying and surprising side to it.
The original engineer had apparently not quite followed procedure. Procedure being :
- croc clip the line
- listen for dialtone
- do the “123 test”
- do 17070 to establish the number
- check the number with “Numbering” to ensure it is a stopped line
So my understanding of step 3 of that process is to dial 123, which is a chargeable call, and chargeable calls are denied on stopped lines. But chargeable calls are also deliberately denied on our (A&A) PSTN lines, because our lines are primarily for broadband. So that is a stupid test. 17070 is an engineer’s test facility which *will* work on a stopped line, at least for a while. 17070 will read out the line’s number, and offer a couple of other tests like quiet line and ringback. The numbering section should be able to confirm the line is stopped. In this instance, apparently, the engineer hadn’t done the last step, so had wrongly assumed the line was stopped.
On my way to work today I realised that if the “123 test” really was just dialling 123 on an unknown line then that means making a chargeable call on an unsuspecting and innocent person’s line. Or, if going through a large junction box, the lines of *many* innocent people. That is to say, causing a 31 pence charge for the speaking clock on every single line tested. This is totally unacceptable and very probably illegal. The Communications Act 2003 certainly seems to think it might be : http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2003/21/section/125 then there is possible fraud? I am not a lawyer, but this has to be really quite wrong. I know 31 pence is probably not going to kill anyone, but still…
Because I had to be sure that this was really what it sounded like I called the engineer who had fixed my line last night again this morning, and asked him to elaborate on what the “123 test” was. He confirmed it to be as I suspected. He made it sound very much as though this was common procedure; not something that he alone (and the first engineer) did. And I have no reason to doubt that.
Would you notice an incorrect 31p speaking clock charge on your phone bill?
Later in the day today, I spoke to the HR and Quality Manager at Kelly, who had emailed me yesterday to see if we might discuss the situation. He assured me that it definitely wasn’t in the procedures for installing lines to steal copper pairs and it also wasn’t in the procedures to use the “123 test”.
He claimed he had never heard of the test. Overall I wasn’t very impressed with the call. In one sense I am slightly impressed that he bothered to take the time, but on the other hand, I think he wants to tell himself that my situation is a “one off” and not common place. He seemed fairly unwilling to accept – and keen to minimise – my assertion that we see many repeats of these problems in our line of business.
He did commit to investigate fully, and report back to me, though I don’t hold out much hope of ever hearing truthfully if the “123 test” has become an informal norm of a Kelly engineer’s life. I say I don’t hold out much hope simply because to admit that it had become one would be to also admit the theft of 31 pence from potentially thousands of unsuspecting individuals and companies! So, no, I don’t expect that.
I would be delighted if any BTOR or Kelly engineers want to post their views in the comments below. I should say, aside from the first engineer (who was meant to be installing a line for someone else, and not breaking mine) I was impressed by the second engineer, and I was impressed by the Fleet Manager, who took my comments seriously.
My opinion of Kelly hasn’t really changed. I reiterate that we (A&A) are happy to host a meeting for Kelly/OR managers to give real world examples, and lots of them, of this happening. We really wish it didn’t happen, and anything that can be done to reduce incidents has got to be a good thing.
I will finish with my two loss and latency / usage graphs. One for my Kellybroken line, and the other for my untouched line. Yes that is over 10 hours of outage on one line, and happily, no loss outage the other.
This blogpost has been updated, please see the bottom for more recent edits.
I work for an ISP, Andrews & Arnold Ltd. We are a small provider, catering for business users who value quality and technical adeptness over cost. That’s not to say we are expensive. We believe we offer “good value” even if that comes at a higher price sometimes. We are currently ranked #2 in the UK by reviewers on the popular (unbiased but, strangely, unaccredited by Ofcom) comparison site http://www.ispreview.co.uk/review/top10.php.
Sadly a trend in the broadband industry (it was bound to happen) has been to treat all broadband offerings as being “basically the same” and compare only based on one attribute; price. In other markets, where the product delivered is far simpler (for example, mains electricity), this makes perfect sense. But in the broadband market, there are far far too many variables, both technical and ‘social’ (for example, quality of technical support) which can alter the real value of an offering.
Regularly we hear stories from customers migrating to us that compare us favourably with their prior provider, usually in terms of technical setups, features, facilities, support or whatever.
To re-iterate, I am saying that, for electricity, or gas, or whatever, price based comparison is good. But for broadband (and maybe even for mobile telephony) it is not good.
To this end we were all surprised when “Ofcom accredited” comparison sites started springing up. And even advertising on the TV!
There are two sites that have been around for a long time, and compare based on customer reviews and ratings; these being ISPReview.co.uk and ThinkBroadband.com but neither of these claims to be Ofcom accredited. Both have been around many years, however, and are trusted sources of useful, true, and “taking a broad view of the market”, all inclusive, information. We have been listed on those for many years, and had no trouble becoming listed.
I have to report, that these Ofcom accredited comparison sites can receive no such praise.
Ofcom lists six comparison sites at its page on the topic; http://consumers.ofcom.org.uk/price-comparison/. After we discount the ones that do not cover Broadband (BillMonitor, and Mobilife) we are left with four :
For some time now, we have been exchanging communications with BroadbandChoices hassling them as to why they do not list Andrews & Arnold amongst their providers. Their television advert claims they compare all the best deals. We have received a variety of excuses for why we cannot be listed but nothing that sounds sensible or logical.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=et0MO8CGhmA <– TV advert
Today I decided to mystery shop (by phone) one of the sites in question. I dialled the number atop the Broadband.co.uk “help” page http://www.broadband.co.uk/help/ ; namely 0800 093 0405. What immediately surprised me was that it was answered by someone claiming to be from “Simplify Digital”. Fishy!
I initially queried whether any of the ISPs they list supports IPv6. This is not such an unreasonable question. The Internet has run out (almost) of IPv4 address space, and more enlightened providers are now offering both IPv4 and IPv6 addresses. This is not confined to small niche ISPs like A&A. Some bigger players are starting to make noises. FaceBook and Google are already hosting their sites on both IPv4 and IPv6.
The “expert” that I spoke to (he was described as an expert by the website and by the voice over the hold music) had never heard of IPv6. Let me re-iterate that. An “expert” working for an “Ofcom accredited” broadband comparison site had no idea what IPv6 was. I said that I already had IPv6 on my current line. He asked who I was with, I said Andrews & Arnold. He had not heard of Andrews & Arnold (less surprising).
I said that there had been several providers I’d heard of, including A&A but which were not listed on his site. We then had a discussion about why this was. Apparently BroadbandChoices, Broadband.co.uk, Cable.co.uk are all supplied their comparison system by SimplifyDigital. So in order to get an ISP listed, one would have to make an approach to SimplifyDigital.
Not just that, but it transpires that all of the other sites callcentres are run by the same firm. So what you believe to be “independent”, “unbiased”, and “Not just from the broadband big boys like Virgin Media, BT and Sky, but from many of the smaller providers too”, is, in reality, four faces of the same, incomplete data, delivered by people who really are not experts, and all under a veil of validity handily provided by a telecoms regulator.
This is yet another example, I am sad to say, of a situation where Ofcom would be better leaving things alone. The “accreditation” gives undeserved authenticity to sites which actually provide more customers to a smaller group of bigger providers; providers not uniformly renouned for their quality of customer service.
EDIT: Thursday 7th March 2013. Someone commenting on this blog suggested I had not done my research properly and had made a factually incorrect statement. I therefore post the call recording (warts and all).
EDIT: Thursday 7th March 12:50pm. Emily Church from BroadbandChoices has taken the time to comment on the blog and answered some of my questions, as well as correcting some inaccurate information that I had reported based on the call recording above. See her comment below.
1. It seems we should be considering BroadbandChoices entirely separate from the others, despite the impression given to me by the “expert” I spoke to. The comparison calculator technology we use on on their site was developed, built and is owned completely in house.
2. The callcentre is also not answering BroadBandChoices’ phones. Not sure why he’d have given me that impression. Very unprofessional.
I would however say that we have attempted to get listed by the site and haven’t found it easy (and have even felt a bit “fobbed off”). So my critique there stands, but we’ll have another go using the details that Emily has provided us now.
I would also say that my criticism of the other sites, for the moment, stands, and my general comments about the whole business of primarily comparing based on price. I would still argue that the two best broadband comparison sites are ISPReview and ThinkBroadband, neither of which, ironically, is OfCom accredited.
EDIT: Wednesday 13th March 2013. I have now had an email from Miles Northrop from Cable.co.uk, the forth comparison site I mention above. He asks if I could update my post to correct the assertion that the comparison system on Cable.co.uk was supplied by SimplifyDigital (as I was told). I will quote his email directly on this matter :
“This is untrue. Much of our time, effort and resources went into the production of our website and its comparison system, so it’s very important to us that the assertion it’s provided by anyone else is corrected.”
I have emailed Miles back asking him to post a comment with his views on this blog. Since we’ve had written feedback from pretty much all of his competitirs, it’d be nice to complete the set with some response from him!
This one happened very suddenly. Natwest Bank (and RBS, and Ulster Bank) all had serious IT problems spanning several days. So on Friday night I cooked up the words for this song, recorded them on Saturday and made the video, releasing it Saturday Lunchtime. It’s now Sunday evening. We’re up to 3000 Youtube hits.. So not a bad bash.
Divine comedy’s Lady of a Certain Age
Chris and I had a go at Needle of Death by Bert Jansch. We thought it went well, and judging by the applause at the end, so did the people in the pub 🙂 A good night.
Sometimes you spend ages setting up a photo and it’s great and people love it. Particularly with portraiture. Sometimes you get lucky; shoot a few pics whilst out on a walk and one or two turn out well. Sometimes you point your camera out of the window, at nothing in particular, tweak the colours a bit and upload it to Facebook and double digits worth of people all click Like on it.
This is one of those. I reckon Ikea ought to flog prints of it for £8 each. Perhaps it could be called LUKKI? Anyway. Not posted for a while so thought I’d plonk something up.
I made another parody at last!
As is probably obvious by this blog, I work in IT. For this reason going abroad and travel in general has always been ‘of concern’ to me. I am responsible for servers, have clients who may need me to remotely fix something, or even visit them in person. Obviously, if I’m on the other side of the world, physical attendance isn’t going to be possible but I recently spent 17 days in Adelaide, South Australia – covering the Xmas/New Year period.
I thought a blog post may be of use to others in a similar situation who are contemplating traveling but who wish to remain ‘teched up’ whilst they are away. I will try and cover everything I learned and tips and tricks, plus anything that made the travel a bit nicer (but isn’t strictly related to IT).
The Traveling itself …
Well a flight to Australia involved (in my case) approximately 13 hours from LHR to SIN. Luckily I was on a Singapore Airlines Airbus 380. Although I was only in economy class, this is not as uncomfortable as it could so easily have been. The A380 is a LOT quieter than the 747-400 I traveled the same route 16 years ago. And on Singapore Airlines, you get good onboard entertainment, lots of TV and films and so on.
Furthermore, they give you a USB socket into which you can plug your smaller devices, AND (brilliantly) a 110v mains outlet so you can hook up a laptop! Specifically on my flights, I found that a standard UK 3 square pin plug could be used with no adaptor (despite being told I would need one). The plug goes in upside down (with its cable pointing upwards).
The onward flight (approx 7 hours) from Singapore to Adelaide was on a Singapore Airlines Airbus 333. This also had USB and 110v mains; bonus! …
For the travel, therefore, I was quite able to keep my mobiles charged, and my laptop. So no worries there at all. To make the flight more pleasant and give myself a degree of ‘stuff to do’ I bought a subscription to Audible and downloaded all the books of Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy; read by Stephen Fry and Martin Freeman. Very excellent indeed. I also downloaded Christopher Hitchens’ “God is Not Great” as although I’d read it, it was a long time ago. Read by Hitch himself. Also fantastic.
In order to listen to these esteemed tomes in the best possible fashion, I spent a lot of money (for me, anyway) on some noise cancelling headphones; specifically, BOSE QuietComfort QC15s. These are basically amazing. Whenever you demonstrate these to somebody, and they flip the switch to enable the noise cancellation, a slow smile of disbelief crosses their face as if to say something like “how? … what? … is this a trick?”.
These headphones really make the flights far far more pleasant; I often had them over my ears without any audio; just to get rid of the background engine/air noise. There isn’t really any way to do them justice in writing other than to say if you are thinking about buying a pair, and know somewhere where you can try them out, definitely do it. They are very effective indeed and worth every penny of the almost £300 they cost.
Telecoms and telephones
Mobiles: I took two phones with me; an Android (HTC Desire S) and my newly acquired iPhone 4S. There were several reasons for this; first I didn’t know I’d be able to charge them on the plane, so took two phones to double my chances of not running out of battery, secondly the iPhone had only turned up a few days before and I thought a holiday would be a good chance to play with it, and thirdly because I wanted to be able to carry a phone with a number that friends and family knew, but work contacts didn’t necessarily know. As a device to own and use, I am now convinced that the iPhone is better than the HTC Desire S. Better audio, better screen, better OS, better apps. Sorry. That’s just the way it is.
Skype: I actually paid for some Skype credit, and also paid the fee for a London number on Skype. This, I reasoned, would allow me to make and receive calls extremely cheaply provided I was able to get wireless access once I arrived in Australia. In practice this cost me just £25, all in, and I still have most of my credit left. Note: it’s also a very cheap way of sending texts whilst you are away compared to probably 35p with your mobile provider on roaming.
Whatsapp: A brilliant app for Android and iPhone. Essentially this replaces texting to your nearest and dearest whilst you are away. It’s actually a lot like iMessage on iPhone, except it’s cross platform, and it won’t send a SMS without telling you if it doesn’t have Internet access (which is costly when abroad). Download Whatsapp.
Computers and devices
I did take my Android tablet but didn’t use it even once. Not because it isn’t a handy device in some circumstances but because I had my MacBook Air with me. This is the best laptop I have ever owned. Amazing battery life, a superbly clear screen, good WiFi sensitivity, very fast. Also very light weight, which if you are lugging it through an airport does make a difference.
Internet Access in strange and interesting places
Obviously this is entirely wireless. For a start the MacBook Air doesn’t have wired ethernet. In LHR I was obviously able to use 3G.
In SIN, there is no free WiFi, but there is WiFi included as part of use of a transit lounge. I recommend this 100% if you are in Changi Terminal 3. It’s called the Ambassador’s Lounge and it costs about 35 Singpore Dollars (about 20 quid ish). This gives you 5 hours use, a shower, and food and drink, and WiFi. They give you the WPA key when you come in and pay. The access is reasonably quick, and reliable.
In Adelaide Airport there is free wifi through a service called InterNode. In several pubs and bars I also found an InterNode access point; in particular the Belair Hotel and the Wheat Sheaf in the city. The access is free of charge; you just click guest. It does seem to time out and require you to re-connect, from time to time. However I found a way around this…
For normal day to day internet access I was staying with family, and they had broadband (though not WiFi), so I took a cheap TP-Link access point with me and donated it (left it behind) 🙂
The other thing I would recommend is a VPN tunnel service. I joined StrongVPN and paid about 85 dollars for a year’s use. This gave me a UK based static IP address (useful for updaing access control lists on the servers you manage). Also, whilst away over New Year’s it’s nice to be able to watch London Fireworks on Iplayer. Iplayer doesn’t work from an Aussie IP address….. But tunnel it via your VPN and bingo; Iplayer works like a charm.
In my previous photography post I indicated I might do a limited edition print run of the two photos; the cows and the landscape. I might yet change the titles of both; certainly I’m going to drop the word England from the start of the title of the landscape, making it just “With all thy faults, I love thee still.” … As for the cows. Maybe “Kissing cows?”.
Anyway, I’ve got the artist’s proofs now, and they are *awesome*, hopefully as you can see from the (phone camera snapped) shot above.
There will be a limited edition print run. It will be an edition of 50 each only. They will be £150.00 each. Discounts available for anyone that buys more than 5 in total. I will post the specification of the paper and print/inks etc once I have them; but the quality is extremely high. Each print will be numbered, titled, and signed. Anyone interested, please email email@example.com.