Why I would not risk switching from BT even though it costs more.

This afternoon my BT Infinity line went down. Luckily I was able to browse the net over an old netbook using Vodafone and find a phone number (after the BT website I Googled told me my number was invalid and would not let me use online reporting: I suspect I was looking at a consumer website for a business line – but it did not tell me).

Once I rang the phone number I was, however, impressed.

A nice Scots girl answered almost immedately and asked for the phone number and details.

She had my account details up, again almost immediately and talked me through a series of tests using software already downloaded into my desktop as part of the Infinity package, giving me a quick commentary on what she was asking me to do and why.

She concluded that there was a problem and put me on hold for five minutes while she ran a fuller set of diagnostics and consulted her supervisor.

Almost immediately the line came back up,

She explained that running the diagnostics might well have alerted the exchange to the problem and/or that I was affected by a problem on which they were already working.

She also said that the fault would be reported anyway for attention tomorrow morning, but it might well be that response would simply be that the fault had been found and corrected.

The whole process took barely thirty minutes, from start of phne call, compared to the fifteen minutes to get through and hour to blag a engineering visit of my last problem (which admittedly took the engineer over four hours of work on line, cabinet and exchange). That was, however, a great improvement on seven to ten days to get an engineering visit booked, when I had two services (one BT, one not), during the collapse of customer service that followed local loop unbundling, Luckily my dual sourcing worked. Both lines passed through the same physical exchange building but never went down at the same time.

I may gripe about the need to have proper competition with regard to the construction of new network capacity and the lack of network inter-operability when it comes to operations and maintenance. But I remain a BT shareholder and my own multi-sourcing will include a BT service contract for the foreseeable future – and I am content with extra that I pay for that service. BT may be part of the problem with regard to the current faltering communications competition scene but I have no doubt that it is also part of the long term solution.

If I did not have BT Infinity would I think differently? Quite possibly. Would I like to dual source with a separate gigabit fibre to the premises link if BT did not offer me such an upgrade? Quite possibly. Do I feel sorry for those without such a choice – most definitely.      

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It loks like we've both been having problems with BT lines recently; my experience had some similarities, but also some differences.

Last Thursday at about 16:30, one of the intense and highly-localised thunderstorms which characterised the weather that day (and adjacent days, elsewhere) passed over my house, and a bolt of lightning struck very close by - close enough to set off house and car alarms on my street. I was working on a remote VM at the time, and my shell immediately hung before timing-out with a broken pipe a couple of minutes later. All my other connectivity dropped.

A call to BT about an hour later (and a chat with a nice lady with an Indian accent) informed me that the area of effect of the lightning strike was local but not inconsiderable, remedial work was in progress at the exchange, and everything should be back up at some point on Friday morning.

I left on business on Friday morning (broadband was down), and got back Friday evening (broadband was still down). Another call to BT (and a chat with a very upbeat chap with a slight Tyneside twang) informed me that as I'm on fibre this necessitates a visit from an engineer - counter-intuitively, lightning strikes to fibre links have greater consequences than to copper links - so he booked me in for Saturday afternoon, "any time between 13:00 and 18:00".

Saturday afternoon came and went; an engineer neither came nor went.

Another call to BT (and a chat with a charming and very apologetic Scottish lady) informed me that the engineer booking system has a bug in it - while my booking was on the central system, it hadn't been pushed to the engineer's job assignment system. The bug also meant that further bookings for an engineer couldn't be made for Sunday. I had to be elsewhere on Monday morning, so accepted a booking for Monday afternoon, "any time between 13:00 and 18:00".

The engineer arrived just before 15:00 today, and did his job very efficiently; the lightning strike had fried my modem and some other suppression componentry mounted just behind the faceplate of the master distribution box just inside my front door, so he set me up with replacements and after we both did some testing, I'm very relieved to be back online and at the same performance as before.

Now, I'm on BT Infinity for Business, so while in the grand scheme of things an outage of 94 hours or thereabouts isn't so bad, for a business which has server infrastructure running via that link (using a BT-assigned static subnet), it hurts a bit. Had the engineer booking system worked correctly, I'd have had maybe 48 hours of outage, which would have been praiseworthy indeed as most mailservers are set up such that if they can't send a message, they will retry over a 48-hour period before giving up. So, an outage of up to 48 hours would mean I wouldn't have had any email destined for me returned as undeliverable.

Given BT's industry in fixing the effects of nature doing some of its electromagnetic worst, I'd say the glass is both half-full and half-empty; but I've heard that experiences with engineer booking similar to mine aren't exactly unusual. It looks like BT still have room for improvement.

Finally, a little under 4 days with home Internet connectivity restricted to 3G on a 'phone went to show me just how important broadband is - as the old adage goes, "you know you're working in a distributed systems environment, when the failure of a system you've never heard of stops you getting any work done", and I certainly had to change my plans for the weekend, when it came to getting work done. There's a resilience angle in all this.

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I think this means we should ask BT to centralise its help desk support on Scotland, now that the referendum is safely over.

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