Broadband buyers need to get their hands dirty
This is a guest post from Walter Willcox and David Cooper, who have been involved with Surrey village Ewhurst’s efforts to get high speed broadband. Regular readers will know that it’s not easy, as this post, based on their experience, shows.
Many local authorities that congratulated themselves for securing deals with BT are now employing their staff to promote the benefits of high speed broadband using BT’s marketing-speak, which can be grossly misleading and sometimes even false.
Surrey County Council, indeed all county councils, should pay more attention to the technical details.
Take the claim that BT is installing “fibre broadband”. In Ewhurst and almost every other village in the country, the final link between the cabinet and the premises is copper or sometimes aluminum. It is remarkable that no-one has asked the Advertising Standards Authority to investigate BT’s “fibre broadband” claims for possible misrepresentation.
But there is a more important practical issue: millions of subscribers are likely never to get the service promised by BT and paid for by taxpayers under the BDUK contracts.
The often-stated figures for those “Having Access” are based on the total number of telephone lines in the fibred-up street cabinet, yet very few of the new cabinets approach that capacity. Surely the ASA should require the cabinet capacity to be clearly stated?
BT deploys new upgraded full-featured fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) cabinets with a capacity of 192 or 288 lines, but BT’s investment in the cable infrastructure is limited to single ducts and a single set of tie cables that each provide a capacity of just 100 lines.
BT is on record saying that it will install more cabinets if the demand is there. Inevitably this means delay, sometimes of over 80 days, while remedial work is done to the cables, followed by even more delay to install a second cabinet.
Most of the BDUK contracts to date are supposed to complete by the end of 2014 or 2015, so what happens if a cabinet’s full capacity is needed after the contract ends?
Similarly, do local authorities realise that to meet demand greater than that provided by the first cabinet, the streets will have to be cluttered with more cabinets? Besides, who will pay for the extra cabinets post 2015?
In addition, technology advances such as G.fast and vectoring, which have still to be proven in the field, are dead ends because of the copper in the last mile. BBC Newsnight and others reported last August that FTTC was the wrong technology in the opinion of experts, here and here.
The local authorities’ lists of postcodes that BT will cover disregard the known line performance and lengths. BT knows the limitations of the service speeds and provides that data as soon as a cabinet is forecast for service. For example, in Peaslake, Surrey BT told the Surrey County Council it will cover the postcode GU6 7NT; yet superfast broadband is unavailable at all 10 addresses, according to the BT Wholesale estimator.
Those unfortunate subscriber at the extremes of the network, or with sub-standard lines, are not even informed by the BT estimator that the fibre cabinet is commissioned. (However the curious may pick up that the category “Fibre Multicast”, which is still shown, indicates that the cabinet is enabled.)
BT is very good at promising the world, but once a customer is hooked for its VDSL service there can be a distinct change of attitude. The subcontractors that BT Openreach hires for installations simply don’t carry the test equipment that can confirm the line’s performance. They rely on a speed test which, just after installation, is tuned to the maximum possible speed. This can change in just 48 hours. At one site we know of, a sync speed of 40Mbps on 9 July degenerated to only 4.38 Mbps by 08:09 on 11 July.
Subscribers then risk a charge around £170 to fix the wires if a fault is detected within their curtilage* (the area around your premises over which you are deemed legally to have control).
A number of ISPs are now offering self-install packages but the result is likely to be more disgruntled customers. How many end users have a detailed understanding of house wiring, let alone line performance issues? Surely Trading Standards should insist on a proper performance test once the connection has had time to “bed down”?
The difference it makes can be material. One case we know of concerns a new Sky self-install where the installation produced 13 Mbps. After remedial works to the house wiring the speed jumped to 28Mbps. That is still well below the “up to” 42Mbps the user was led to expect.
The separation of powers between Openreach and its wholesalers means that when a fault occurs, the end user has to convince the ISP, and the ISP has to convince Openreach to fix it.
This thread on the Kitz bulletin board (two pages) shows just how hard it can be to figure out and fix what’s wrong. It shows clearly that faults on the copper (telephony) network can destroy broadband performance, and that Openreach’s process and practice to fix them is arcane and open to error, to say the least.
Those responsible for making policy and for paying BT might also like to ask how BT can invest a billion pounds on TV sports contracts while Openreach’s maintenance performance has been so bad for so long that it has accepted it must pay fines if it misses certain targets.
Even casual observers can see signs of poor maintenance. For example electricity poles are quite properly being replaced, but the old rotting and unsightly poles remain lashed to the new ones, apparently because Openreach can’t afford to swap the cables from the old poles to the new ones.
These may be boring technical details, but in the end, they determine the customer experience. BT may be able to buy off shareholders with dividends and politicians with promises, but only performance will win the hearts and minds of customers.
As BT is the monopoly supplier in most rural areas, unhappy customers have only the ballot box through which to voice their displeasure. With elections just 18 months away, anyone whose job depends on a vote should start getting their hands dirty with the technical details of superfast broadband.