Rural sub post offices are still apparently required to use elderly (perhaps aluminium) lines from BT even when full fibre is available from alternative suppliers like B4RN or LGFL has connected the local school via Starlink. Two days ago the Independent carried the headline Postmistress says Horizon system still malfunctions every week – and Post Office are chasing payment .
The connectivity problems which still appear to plague Horizon must be addressed if rural sub-post offices are to help improve central and social government contact with the digitally excluded. This issue is likely to gain momentum over the next year, during the longest election campaign in history.
Why was Horizon more badly affected by connectivity problems than comparable networks
Yesterday, I received an e-mail from Brian Henderson who worked in 2018 on support for the Ingenico terminals used to handle card payments via Post Offices including for pre-paid Gas and Electricity Keys. These terminals were already in use by 2005 and suffered from similar problems with poor quality land-lines to rural post office.
The big difference was that credit card transactions were individually reconciled, as opposed to being batched in the Sub Post Office “terminal” for an end of day reconciliation with “head office”. Then 11,000 Post Offices would be trying to use using XML, many over slow and error prone phone lines, to transmit the day’s accounting records in a window between 6.00 pm and 7.00 pm. Brian believes that is the reason problems clustered at some branches: those with the worst phone lines.
Ingenico’s support service operates in the name of most payment systems in the UK. As late as 2018 support calls from Post Office for their devices were dreaded because they tended to come in over telephone lines that were unexpectedly poor, compared to those of other high street and forecourt chains. Brian’s own background included networks supporting similarly large numbers of local systems and terminals. He was surprised by what he learned about the primitive nature of the Post Office data collection, accounting and audit, compared to that of banks, financial services and retailers. His feeling is that the cover up was driven by a desire to conceal the attempt to do everything on the cheap, including its archaic 7.00 pm reconciliation exercise and failure to invest in the telecoms system it needed … and still needs.
Was there an alternative in 1998?
In defence of the Post Office, Horizon was being rolled out before BTs dash to invest in broadband from 2002 onwards and that was focussed on consumers, in order to protect its leased line cash cow. But ministers should have been told about the consequences!
In later 1990s a major oil company, which already had terabit networks linking its main sites, including in the UK, wanted to install lines to its forecourts and to enable key staff to work from home. It bankrolled a series of Digital Policy Alliance meetings on the inter-operability standards necessary. Immediately after the last meeting (a presentation of progress and plans by the various players involved) the project leader told me quietly that he would be announcing that they were canning the project (about the same size as Horizon!) because they could not see it being practical for at least another five years. In the event, to our mutual surprise, the financial services players met all the timetables they had announced. The others, including BT, did not. It was a decade before the Oil Company revived their plans, beginning on the continent, not in the UK.
What about now?
Twenty-five years on BT has yet to offer affordable broadband to most small and medium businesses … like rural sub-offices …. Unless it has also decided to offer it to consumers in the same area.
Any computer system is only as good as its weakest link. What if the weakest link is the network?
Brian’s key questions for any Sub Post Master affected are:
– did you have any issues with your phone lines?
– did you have dropped calls and issues speaking to helpdesks?
If we hear yes from more than a handful of Post Office branches we may have a second “smoking gun”, following on from poor accounting and audit practice, undermining prosecutions … and it appears this gun may still be firing today.
And how does the landline problem fit within the wider Horizon Scandal?
Banking from high-streets is not rocket science – it is known problem, with known solutions.
Brian believes Post Office tried to be cute, do things quickly on the cheap and ended up covering a £billions spent in wrong places (with poor management, lack of accounting and audit, lack of reporting etc.) and did not spend the 20-30% necessary to upgrade the supporting communications network.
Brian Henderson has had 40 year career in Information Technology, 12 years as a Scientific Civil Servant in research and development focused mainly on scalable web-based technologies, 28 years in Commercial Consulting covering online-applications, networking, financial planning, financial reporting, helpdesks and social media. He has had over 500+ customer engagements across UK and Europe. He has both experience of PostOffice support calls and of the technologies Horizon IT was built on.
I also declare my own interest – apart from blogging about business broadband problems for over a decade.
Before he retired, shortly before the 1997 election and the withdrawal of the Benefits Agency from Pathway, one of my uncles ran arguably the largest sub-post offices in the UK, with a turnover (mainly Girobank) that would have put it in the top 50 crown offices.
He was only too well aware of the scale of benefit fraud, the poor state of the Post Office accounting systems and the eagerness of the Post Office Investigations department to blame sub-postmasters for internal failings.
After he retired, his former staff (when they visited) used to complain regularly about the slowness of the Horizon systems, saying it had been quicker by hand. That said, for them, “by hand” was using desk top calculators akin to those I used to check the functioning of computer systems when I was an analyst programmer in the late 1960s and early 1970s and later, as a corporate planner (in the late 70s early 80s), to check computer models before using them to do sensitivity analyses and checking the data behind the key assumptions.