BT criticised as profits announced

Antony Savvas

BT recently reported huge annual profits, but in the last few months its standard of service in various business segments has...

Antony Savvas

BT recently reported huge annual profits, but in the last few months its standard of service in various business segments has been far from perfect.

The BT annual accounts reveal that in traditional telecoms provision - like standard fixed voice lines - BT's profit margins are being slowly eroded thanks to competition.

But BT still has the upper hand when it comes to market share, and is expected to rule the roost in most business areas for many years to come.

Because of this continuing near-monopoly, the Telecommunications Managers' Association (TMA) has called for greater accountability when it comes to service.

TMA director-general David Harrington says, "In general, service levels on the BT fixed network are high and there is enough redundancy built in to cope with most failure modes.

"Nevertheless, the global network is the most complex machine ever built, and disruptions are bound to occur from time to time," he adds.

"[The TMA is] unhappy about any disruption, and even less happy about a series of disruptions, if only because of the health and welfare of our commercial life - to say nothing of the rest of society - is now heavily dependent on telecommunications."

Harrington explains, "The licensed operators carry an enormous responsibility and we would hope that Oftel and the DTI are monitoring the number and frequency of outages very closely."

The critical factors to monitor, according to Harrington, are:

  • How often do failures occur

  • How quickly are failures addressed and eradicated

  • If a fix is applied, is it a real fix or does the problem reoccur.

    But he points out that virtually all the service areas which have experienced recent failures fall outside the current comparable performance indicators (CPI) measurement regime supported by most major telecoms firms, including BT.

    The TMA believes that customer satisfaction for applications such as freephone, and services such as Internet access, messaging and Wap (wireless application protocol) could all be candidates for future measurement under the co-operative CPI Forum.

    Harrington says the TMA was a lone voice in challenging the telecoms providers to adopt full service measurements in these areas.

    But a BT spokesman - while not prepared to address the recent failures individually - defends BT's general performance, despite the TMA's concerns about full accountability for services aimed at the new economy.

    He says, "According to the latest comparable performance indicators for the fixed network, BT's performance continues to compare well with our competitors. And in terms of customer satisfaction, we remain at the higher end of those operators taking part in the indicators, especially with regard to our billing service, with over nine out of 10 customers expressing satisfaction."

    The spokesman adds, "Customer satisfaction with business provision has improved to its best level since December 1996, and 90% of business and residential customers said they are satisfied with engineers visiting their premises to carry out repairs."

    On the subject of BT's network and systems, the spokesman points out that the last analogue exchange was taken out of service in March 1998, and that the trunk switched network has been completely digital since 1990.

    Modernisation of the junction transmission network continues however..The introduction of this new technology into the network will eventually allow all customers a range of new services. These include itemised select services, such as call diversion, three-way calling and call barring, and the transmission of pictures, text and computer data, as well as voice.

    The spokesman says, "We have continued to make significant investments in the area of intelligent network infrastructure and BT now has one of the most powerful network-based distributed environments available in the world today."

    But as far as users are concerned, it could be a lot better.

    A catalogue of BT failures this year

  • The BT network failed to deal with freephone and national local rate numbers for the second time this year: the system crashed in May and in February an outage lasted 24 hours

  • A failure in emergency number support in Aberdeenshire last month

  • BT Internet's service was down last month - because of its servers being used by junk-mailers, illegally

  • The national Voice Bank paging service last month sent a single voicemail - from a housewife complaining about a mouldy sausage to an environmental health line - to tens of thousands of people, including police forces up and down the country

  • The crash of the BT Cellnet Wap service last month so that only half of Wap calls got through

  • Read more on Wireless networking