…and you’re not gonna reach my telephone.

Or, when an FTTC install goes bad.

Finally got around to getting FTTC installed to replace my ADSL service which seldom did more than about 3Mb/sec has had it’s fair share of ups and downs in the past. Didn’t want to commit to the 12 month contract term until I knew the owner was willing to extend our lease, but now that’s happened, I ordered the upgrade, sticking with my existing provider, Zen Internet, who I’m actually really happy with (privately held, decent support when you need it, don’t assume you’re a newbie, well run network, etc…).

For the uninitiated, going FTTC requires an engineer to visit your home, and to the cabinet in the street that your line runs through and get busy in a big rats nest of wires. The day of the appointment rolled around, and mid-morning, a van rolls up outside – “Working on behalf of BT Openreach”. “At least they kept the appointment…”, I think to myself

BT doesn’t always send an Openreach employee on these turnups, but they send a third-party contractor, and this was the case for this FTTC turn-up…

The guy checked the line was working before disconnecting the existing CPE and putting a tone generator on the line. Seemed to know what he was doing but it would have looked a bit more professional if he got his tone generator out of a proper equipment bag, rather than a tatty cardboard box which at some point had contained a VDSL modem according to the label.

I did indicate where he could find the street cab and FTTx cab, which was a street away, as all he had been given was the name of the road it was on, and he headed off to do the work in the street, to “double jumper” the line through to the FTTx cab and back to the copper to my front door. He came back attached the new faceplate, plugged in the VDSL modem, it synced, and the router authenticated. Packets flowed back and forth and got where they were supposed to go. Hooray.

However, no dialtone on the phone.

Here’s where things started to go awry. I was given a choice by the engineer of “going back to the old ADSL and maybe getting PSTN phone service back” or “sticking with the VDSL” and having a fault opened against the lack of dialtone. He mumbled something about “the jumpering being tight”, and said “BT will need to look at this if it’s on the voice side”.

Given that having a “retry” of the FTTC install would mean a new appointment and therefore having to sacrifice another day, I said to leave the phone off, and I’d stick with the upgraded net access. The sub-contractor engineer said he would open a fault with BT in due course, but only after some prompting.

Three hours after the engineer leaving, there was no fault open against the line according to the fault tracking tool on BT.com.

So, I used their online utilities to perform a line test. This normally causes an interruption to your internet access as well, but on this occasion there wasn’t an interruption, and the tool identified a fault “near your premises” – i.e. in the “last mile” from the exchange. I suspected that the jumpering hadn’t been made properly, or messed up, by the contractor.

A fault was opened against the line, and BT then say it will take 3 working days to fix – which takes us through to next Tuesday! They are having a laugh right? Their (no doubt lowest bidder) contractor they outsourced the job to made a hash of it, and I’m told I’ll be left with no service for the best part of a week.

(I know that I can get by without a landline for a bit, but sadly, my technophobe parents are of the ilk that can’t/won’t use Skype and won’t dial mobiles because “aren’t they expensive?” – If I’m not picking up my home phone, they don’t phone my mobile, oh no. They just keep trying the home number, and when they do get through to me, I’m greeted with a wail of “I’ve been phoning and phoning, but you’re never there…”)

If it really was as simple as wrong jumpering, I could have probably fixed it myself in 3 minutes, including walking to the cab! 3 days? Give me a Krone tool, tone probe, jumper wire, BT cab key… I wrote on Twitter.

BT’s Twitter people must have noticed, because they were rather quickly in touch to request more details of the problem.

Maybe they had something to do with this, or possibly luck was on my side, but I was nevertheless surprised when a (real, proper) Openreach engineer knocked on the door late the same snowy afternoon.

Armed with an arsenal of (smartly packaged) test equipment, he ran a TDR test from my socket, which revealed that the line was no longer connected to the exchange, and giving a bogus distance, so it was on with the tone generator and off to the street cabinet. After about 30 minutes he came back, declaring the problem fixed, and then took the time to explain to me what he had found and the action he’d taken:

A wire on the E (exchange) side of my routing in the cab was damaged and had been broken, likely when the jumpering was changed and re-made during activation of the FTTC service that morning. The initial damage (corrosion?) to the cable was likely pre-existing, and the morning’s work finished it off – anyone working on or near that pair could have caused it to snap, it was so brittle, according to the engineer.

This is why the FTTC service worked (as that was reaching the street DSLAM), but the phone was broken, as the cable break was on the Exchange side of the DSLAM.

The Openreach engineer had to request a new copper routing from the exchange to the cab, and get a colleague in the Bromley exchange to change the jumpering there to reflect the new routing. The engineer also took the opportunity to replace and tidy the jumpering for the line at the cab end, as it was “stretched taut”. He also asked if I’d been told by the contract engineer about the 10 day training/conditioning period for the line – which I already knew about anyway, or positioning the VDSL modem to prevent it overheating. The contractor had sort of mentioned these things, I guess.

I commented that I’d previously suspected an intermitted problem on the line based on past DSL retrains, and being able to occasionally hear whooshing or crosstalk (especially ringing current). However at the time, BT’s line testing said “No fault found”, so no chance of getting an engineer visit or new E-side routing at the time.  The Openreach engineer did agree the previous issues were likely down to the poor condition of the old copper routing, but the only way BT would have known would be by use of the Mk1 eyeball. I thanked the engineer for the quick response and for fixing the problem.

Now, if only the chap who came in the morning could have done that?

I asked the Openreach man if the contractor could have fixed this. Turns out he could have, but it would have taken him more time than his employers allow him to do the job. Hence the excuse he “couldn’t fix voice problems”. He obviously knew the cabling on the E-side was shagged, knew he was looking at at least another 30-45 minutes work, including a call to the routing department to request a new copper routing to replace the broken one, and getting an exchange tech to re-jumper at the exchange.

Despite the fact that the contractor should have been able to fix the line problem that had been introduced during the FTTC upgrade, he chose not to because of the way he is incentivised – paid per job, and number of jobs per day, not for doing a thorough job and leaving behind a satisfied customer.

While the fact that a repair visit was required within 24 hours of the FTTC install will be recorded, it will likely just be some meaningless statistic, as no doubt a goodly percentage of outsourced jobs pass without incident.

So, all to save a few lousy bob per job for BT Openreach, they outsource the job to an external organisation in such a way that they aren’t incentivised to fix problems but to bosh their way through their job list, which means repeat engineer visits to repair the mess left in their wake, increasing costs for Openreach and bringing with it the problem of customer dissatisfaction.

The other annoying thing was that it doesn’t seem possible to speak (verbally, you know, using that quaint thing called a telephone) to someone in BT faults anymore, which seems ironic for a communications company. 151 is basically an automaton. “Self service” isn’t a bad thing, but there are times when you need to deal with another human being, right? You can do a webchat with someone in an Indian contact centre who is polite enough and apologetic, obviously working from a script, while talking about BT and Openreach in the third person – outsourced too?

I’m not a frothing anti-outsourcing zealot, honest! I’m working as a freelance contractor myself at the moment, so that would just be too ironic. But I still question why organisations choose to contract out important elements of their business the way they do, rather than keep it in house and keep control.

So, don’t think I’m the pot calling the kettle when I criticise Openreach for outsourcing a key part of their principal hard product in such a way that the contractors are encouraged to do “slap jobs” on an ageing copper infrastructure which seems to need some TLC. One also wonders what horrors such “bish, bash, bosh” field engineering is storing up for the future, by which point maybe the outsourcing company will have pocketed the money and headed off leaving a trail of dust?