After a brief stint away, as I walked home, I saw a van with the BT OpenReach logo emblazoned on the front parked down the street.
Thinking nothing of it, I opened my laptop on arrival and attempted to connect to the Web. Alas, the connection was gone. After resetting my router, checking configuration settings and trying to use the emergency connector within the gray BT box by my windowsill, I was forced to bow to the inevitable -- it had to be an external fault.
Although ironically I was due to set up a business line in my new property in the following month -- which means you pay extra for ultra-quick repair services -- I was still on a standard connection at this point, and had to report the fault with my ISP and wait days for a response from BT. Eventually, an engineer turned up who puzzled over the problem, theorizing that it could have been caused by someone climbing up a "spiked mast" -- which is apparently a fireable offense -- and causing damage, or it could have be due to an underground fault, of which he wasn't qualified to repair.
Pleading and the promise of a crate of beer to get me back online later, and the engineer returned the next day with equipment and extra hands. According to the BT employee, the problem was caused by someone taking my line to set up a new connection elsewhere.
I enquired further: Why, when I was paying line rental, was my line cut? The engineer responded by saying that contractors were likely at fault, as they tended to try and blast through jobs quickly and either did not check or update system records to show that lines were active -- or simply took a line anyway and left a BT engineer to deal with the consequences later.
As a result, I am now using the line previously assigned to those in the apartment above me.
This frustrating experience, which left me cursing my lack of Web backup, meant that reading a PC Pro article describing the case of Adrian Kennard, from business ISP A&A, caught my interest.
Kennard has an accusation to make. The blogger says that instead of checking records, a contractor or engineer often rips out active lines, connecting a test line to pairs in order to find one suitable for use -- potentially killing active, subscribed-to lines belonging to others in the process.
This is how it works: Two copper wires twisted together, also known as a "pair," form a telephone line service. When an engineer needs to form a new line, they look for available wires running from the exchange to the telephone cab, and from the cab to the little gray boxes in your home, local distribution points. These are tested for a dial tone to see whether a line is active; if not, the line is used to create a new connection.
"Now, you might think this is a process of checking the records to see which of the pairs in each cable/cabinet are spare, allocating one, and using that pair. Indeed, this is the right way to do it and what you will often find is done by the engineer.
However, there is another way, and this seems to be done quite often -- instead of checking the records, the engineer simply connects a test telephone to pairs looking for one that he can use. If he finds a pair that is not in use, then he acquires it for the install, and updates the records to say he has done it."
The problem is, as in my case and many others, I no longer need or use a landline -- my mobile and Skype do just fine. Purely used for broadband, as in the case of Kennard, my line -- used for something other than a normal telephone service -- was pinched for the sake of hooking up someone else.
"Unfortunately this means any line used for something other than normal telephone service can get nicked," Kennard explains. "We have seen this on SDSL lines that have no dial tone. To avoid this, when we install lines 'just for broadband use' we do set them up to have a dial tone, and even allow free calls to be made. That helped a lot in avoiding pairs going missing."
Not only is this alleged problem an issue that costs time and money for Internet Service Providers (ISPs), as customers will call them in the U.K. in order to have an appointment and BT engineer booked to fix the problem, but it causes frustration and anger for customers reliant on BT's line rental services.
Kennard calls the alleged procedure a "disgrace," and I happen to agree. Sadly, engineer or contractor misbehaviour or laziness can be difficult to prove and circumstantial, as if a customer is out at work or misses an OpenReach van, contractor or work being conducted during the day, those who may be at fault may not ever be found culpable.
Speaking to ZDNet on the condition of anonymity, a BT employee told me that contractors, rather than OpenReach itself, are generally to blame. Although the problem "pisses off" OpenReach engineers no end, contractors "take pairs all the time" as their companies pay them per job instead of claiming an annual salary from the telecoms firm.
As a result, contractors want to get in, finish the job, collect their pay and do it as quickly as possible, and many do not check records or conduct proper tests -- which sometimes results in cutting off line-rental paying customers elsewhere.
Speed is key, according to the engineer. Contractors snag the quicker jobs, such as setting up new lines, and are not permitted or trained to fix faults -- which leaves those issues to the salaried BT engineers -- and may also fail to update paperwork just to compound confusion.
A solution will be difficult to find. While contractors help with the workload and may be cheaper for OpenReach to hire than to hire more salaried engineers, the additional workflow caused by faults that should not happen in the first place makes the situation murky. Not only does this hurt BT's reputation, but costs the company in paying overtime, hiring more engineers to fix faults, and may slow down fiber installation and progress which benefits BT's future.
Perhaps the only thing that can be done is for BT and the OpenReach division to take a long, hard look at how they do business and ways that contractors are kept in check -- as well as how records are kept.
A BT spokesman told ZDNet:
"We do not condone impacting one customer's service to restore another’s and we take such allegations very seriously.
We would encourage anybody with any evidence of this activity to report it to Openreach immediately and we will investigate.
Openreach is fully focused on connecting new customers and helping restore service to those experiencing a fault."