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Herefordshire & The Marches

Broadband in Herefordshire, part 2: reaching Openreach

To adapt a popular saying: it’s not what you email, it’s who you email. At least, while the former’s important, the latter turns out to be too.

After bashing our heads against the BT Openreach brick wall, detailed in the previous post of this series, matters were resolved remarkably quickly. It’s all down, it seems, to who you talk to at Openreach.

As explained, we tried going through Fastershire, who oversee the broadband rollout in Herefordshire. They were keen to help, but were unable to move Openreach along in any meaningful way. We also contacted our local councillor, who, to give him his credit, tried to help through his contact at Herefordshire Council. No dice.

It was village resident Shaun Haydon, from Kington café Border Bean, who, in a conversation on the subject, mentioned how he’d had success by contacting BT directly. That set off a train of thought; why go through BT Retail, where we could instead email the head honcho directly?

It’s easy enough to find the Openreach CEO’s email address online—we won’t reproduce it here, but it shouldn’t take you long, if you need it—and we sent an email outlining the problem.

Within ten minutes—ten minutes!—we had a personal reply from Openreach CEO Clive Selley, confirming our reading of the situation, and promising investigation as a matter of urgency. True to his word, within the hour, a senior Openreach representative was on the case. Within four hours, the errant record on our number was fixed. We continued to communicate with him to ensure correction of other Titley numbers, for our neighbours experiencing similar problems.

Before long, our fibre services were activated, and despite the odd issue, proved a vast improvement over the former ADSL services.

Who deserves the credit? After the matter was resolved, in a parish update email, the councillor mentioned that “One recent local problem was only resolved by direct contact with the C.EX of BT. After weeks of frustration surprising [sic] the matter was resolved in a few hours.” While that statement is technically true, it leaves it rather unclear as to whose idea it was to contact BT (Shaun’s), let alone the CEO (ours). A mixture of low-level communal putting-of-heads-together, combined with high-level Openreach contact, served to do the job; the entire local government tier (councillors, officers) proved to be a diversion, if not a dead end, in this case.

As a business, we’re much better placed than we were before: 40Mbps downstream is a vastly improved platform upon which to run a web design outfit. It’s not all rosy, of course; the copper line from the cabinet are still irritatingly flaky, meaning that occasional engineer visits continue to be required, forcing us to fall back to our second FTTC line. Will Part 3 be the FTTP saga?

In the meantime, if anyone in the Titley area is still having problems with their number being listed on the wrong cabinet (for most village residents, it should be down as being on 9 rather than 11), please get in touch and we’ll try to have Openreach look into it.

Broadband in Herefordshire: Openreach’s ironic name

If there’s one utility that a website design business needs to function, it’s Internet access (with the possible exception of electricity). Unfortunately, in rural Herefordshire, decent broadband remains a dream.

At our office location, a few miles from Kington, in the village of Titley, standard ADSL has provided a downstream speed of around 2.5Mbps: not great, but usable with a degree of care. Fibre broadband has been supposedly coming for years, and it was anticipated that this would finally provide the necessary boost to a half-decent speed. This work was due, according to BT Openreach, to be completed by the end of 2016.

It is with much annoyance and even a hint of anger, therefore, that I come to outline the hopelessly inadequate practices of BT Openreach in relation to the purported rollout of fibre broadband. Openreach could hardly be a less suitable name: they’re neither open with their information nor keen to reach out.

A bit of background: during most of 2016, our telephone line was officially connected to Cabinet 2 on the Kington exchange. This received a relatively early fibre upgrade; from memory this was completed in 2015. Unfortunately for our line, Cabinet 2 is situated on the edge of Kington, 3 miles or so from Titley, meaning that VDSL cannot be provided to any of the Titley properties due to the distance.

We raised this matter with Fastershire, mentioning our concerns that many on Cabinet 2 would not actually be receiving fibre; we wanted to make sure that we weren’t forgotten. Fastershire did not give any specific indications about what would be happening in Titley, beyond referring us to the county-wide broadband strategy, and confirming that Titley would not be receiving FTTP.

Screenshot of the BT Openreach checker, showing fibre as available on our phone number
Fibre available? Don’t count your chickens.

However, during 2016, work had started in Titley on what looked suspiciously like another fibre cabinet, bearing the number 9. In December 2016, the Openreach checker declared that we were now on Cabinet 9, and that FTTC would be available by the end of the year. We put out the bunting. On 28 December 2016, Openreach’s checker indicated that Cabinet 9 was now “accepting orders”. Naturally, we promptly ordered a fibre service.

A few days later, we received an “Order Rejected” email from our ISP, which stated that it had come to light that fibre was not available on our line after all. Bizarrely, the Openreach checker was now showing our line as being connected to Cabinet 11, another new cabinet. Cabinet 11 is situated near Rushock, about a mile out from Kington. Unlike Cabinet 9, it’s still in the process of being provisioned.

Our line shouldn’t be on Cabinet 11 at all. We’re a matter of metres from Cabinet 9; we’re miles from Cabinet 11, so we wouldn’t be able to order fibre even if it were enabled on 11, for the same reason that we couldn’t order it when we were on Cabinet 2.

The other oddity was that if we entered our postcode rather than phone number into the Openreach checker, it claimed our property was on Cabinet 9 – as it should be.

We contacted Fastershire and they attempted to chase up Openreach, but at time of writing had no response from Openreach to pass back to us.

The next step was to contact Openreach directly, explaining the situation in detail, including the matter of the checker indicating we were on the wrong cabinet.

Openreach have been diabolically bad when it comes to responding to queries. First of all, there is the small matter of their response time: they give an estimated turnaround time of twenty – twenty! – working days. In what business would an official three-week response time be considered remotely acceptable?

If one was being cynical, one would say that this response time was extremely self-serving, allowing them to get away with an absurdly low number of customer responses.

Such a policy might be excused if Openreach’s replies were of any use. Sadly, this isn’t the case. The first Openreach response, on 23 January 2017, was as follows:

We’ve investigated and found that you are connected to cabinet 11 and exchange KINGTON.

FTTC (Fibre to the cabinet) is available for you for which a project is ongoing with an estimated completion date of Mid of February, 2017 which is subjected to change as per the work left.

Great: a response that repeats back to me what I told them in the original email. I duly responded, explaining again in details the issue with the checker. I even boiled it down to two simple questions for them to answer:

  1. Why does the checker suddenly claim that our line is on Cabinet 11 (~3km away) when it said Cabinet 9 (~300m away) until recently?

  2. Since the upgrade of Cabinet 11 will be useless for all Titley residents, when will they be put on to Cabinet 9?

A month later, I received the following response:

I am pleased to advise that Fibre to the Cabinet should now be available for you to order

This was followed by a screenshot of the Openreach checker with our postcode, which showed, as before, that we were on the FTTC-enabled cabinet 9. Unfortunately, searching using the phone number still showed us as on Cabinet 11. Essentially, Openreach were, once again, parroting back to us what we’d already explained to them.

Whether you consider Openreach to have been wilfully or accidentally obtuse depends on your level of cynicism. The long and the short of the matter is that, despite fibre supposedly having been rolled out to Titley by late 2016, two months down the line properties and businesses are still stranded without access to fibre. I know of at least three businesses in the Titley area in a similar situation; there are likely to be others out there, in addition to many home users.

To make things worse, our existing ADSL connections appear to have sharply degraded in the last couple of months, with high latency, daily dropouts, and dramatic crashes in sync speed all common experiences.

Fastershire seem to want to help, but it appears that their power to force Openreach to open up is limited. They need users to supply specific detail of failed orders.

There’s no doubt that Openreach have done much to supply the infrastructure of rural Herefordshire broadband, but their lack of openness in information supply threatens to eradicate any public goodwill.