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Students: the broadband troubleshooter

Student? Moved out of halls? Ready to move into your new student digs?
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor on
Student? Moved out of halls? Ready to move into your new student digs? Heads up.

Following on from my series of harrowing entries regarding my broadband trouble, it's about time I sat you down and explained a few things about ISP's, phone lines, telecoms providers and the occasional thing in between.

Water bills, electricity bills and gas bills are relatively easy to get, regardless of whichever country you're in. They keep the flow of their service going without stopping, and it's merely a case of ringing them up to inform them of a new tenancy. They send you information, you start paying, you grumble when the bills arrive, but ultimately there's usually very little screwing around.

A phone line, however, gets cut off, and getting it connected again can be incredibly, absurdly difficult to get it going again. You may think its a few phone calls away, but I assure you if there isn't even a shred of worry in your mind, I strongly recommend you read ahead anyway.

Expect the unexpected. Be prepared. Stay determined. Here's how.

Because situations will vary from house to house and person to person, I'll explain in "flowchart form", and if there's anything that doesn't apply to you, please feel free to leave a Talkback and let me know your experiences and how you've coped. I'm not writing this just to explain for me to then bugger off down to the pub; I'm here to help you get through this as smoothly as possible. I've been let down by many-a-company, and will be damned if anyone else should have to go through anything similar.

You move in, unpack your stuff, and get a cup of tea going. You pick up the phone and you CAN make a phone call. This is bad, very bad. This means the previous tenant hasn't disconnected the phone line. In legal terms, it's your house now and you have full control over what happens inside it. You need to ring up your national telecoms company or whoever deals with landline telecoms in your area and get the line disconnected. This could take a good few days.

If this isn't the case, your line has been disconnected by the previous tenant which will make life easier for you. You should still hear a dial tone, but you won't be able to call anybody except a few service commands (in England, we have 1471 which tells us who last called, similar to the *69 service) and the emergency services; 911, 999 or 112 depending on where you are.

You'll need to ring your telecoms company (in the UK it's BT Openreach) from another phone and get them to reconnect you. With some backend tinkering and 3-4 days later, they'll give you a brand new number and you'll be able to dial out to another phone.

You move in, unpack your stuff, and get a brew going. You pick up the phone and there's dead silence; no dial tone and no tones when pushing buttons. Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear. Your house will have a physical phone line which connects your house to your local telephone exchange, which in itself allows you to connect to other customers - hence the phone, a wondrous device indeed. Running along the physical phone line is a "software phone line" which is provider by your telecoms company, but also carries data such as broadband, voice-over-copper-cabling and dial-up Internet packets.


If there's no tone whatsoever, the physical phone line into the house will need to be replaced; ensuring a fat, lazy phone engineer will bimble around to your house in 10-15 days, drink tea and scratch his arse for most of the day, rummage through your underwear drawer if you're not in, and finally get around to switching wires over in your telephone control box in your house.

After then, you'll get a dial tone but no connection to any other phone. You'll need to ring up your telecoms provider and get them to reconnect you.

You've got your phone line in place and you can make phone calls. You want to get started with broadband so you ring your chosen ISP. If you've just had installed a brand new physical phone line, you should be in the clear. A new physical phone line means no tags or information attached to that line, meaning it's all clear to go and a broadband provider can piggy back your line to provide you with über-fast Internet.

My ISP tells me there's a tag on the line. This happens when the ISP of the previous tenant doesn't cancel the broadband account. If they've cancelled the phone line, that still doesn't count, as the tag is on the physical copper cabled phone line. Your best bet is to ring your telecoms provider, ask them about the tag, and see who owns it.

Imagine the tag being like a firewall into your house. It's a firewall which only allows broadband connectivity to and from your house with the ISP who put the tag there. If another ISP tries to provide you with broadband connectivity, it hits this firewall tag and won't be allowed through. The tag needs to be removed by the previous ISP, so your chosen ISP can sign you up and put their own tag in place. I even prepared a diagram, rather cool, really.


Once you find out which ISP owns the tag, ring them up and tell them you're a new tenant and they need to remove the tag on the line, thus allowing you to start an account with your chosen broadband provider. This could take up to 72 hours to take effect across the board.

My ISP asks me for a MAC code. This can cause difficulties as well. A MAC code is a Migration Account Code which enables the consumer to change broadband providers without a break in connection, but also stops abuse by people hijacking other peoples' connection.

In the UK, ISP's legally have to provide you one within 5 days, and it's active for 30 days once it's been created. The trouble is, if you aren't the account holder, you can't obtain the MAC code without proving you live there.

You have two options from this:

  1. Ring your landlord, as there's a very high chance they were the landlord to the previous tenant. Explain the story and be very nice, but ask for as much information about the previous tenant. Full name, date of birth, mobile phone number if possible, as these are things which the ISP will ask. Not recommended, but try ringing their ISP and pretend to be the previous tenant using the information given. If that fails, use the information and get in touch with the previous tenant.

  2. If that fails though, you'll be asked to provide proof of residence in form of a utility bill. The previous tenant's ISP will ask you to post or fax these to their head office to then get the account cancelled or the MAC code provided. Expect this to take a while though.

I've tried everything - to get the MAC code, provided proof of residence, I even pretended to be the previous tenant on the phone. Help! Not all is lost on this one. There are still a few things you can do, and hopefully you won't reach this point, as I can imagine you'd be quite stressed as I most certainly have been myself, in this position.

Ring your chosen ISP and explain the situation fully to them. The chances are they'll have a "provisions department" which deal with such issues. These guys take everything into account of your current situation, and will consult with your national telecommunications regulatory authority to ensure you get broadband without any further hassle. The likely outcome of this, is 2-4 days after first making the claim is your chosen ISP have the authority to take over the line regardless, and begin your broadband service. This is exactly what I had to do.

Another option is to ring your phone line provider, such as BT Openreach or BT Retail in the UK. As they are the primary authority for issuing new phone lines, they kind of have ultimate control over the lines, restricted by rules of course. With them, they'll be able to set up their own broadband package for you regardless of the tags or other problems on the line. Be warned, as you may not get the original deal you wanted, you may get slower speeds and it may cost more. I'd say this is the final solution, but only take it if you've exhausted all other possibilities.

When all else fails... The final thing to say on this doesn't guarantee you any service. Provided you've been through everything written here already, complain to the national telecommunications regulatory authority; in the UK this is Ofcom. An official complaint from the regulatory authority could cause serious damage to the ISP holding tags or causing trouble in question, but may not guarantee a result for you; only disciplinary action against the ISP.

If there's anything here that doesn't apply to you, please feel free to leave a Talkback and let me know your experiences and how you've coped. 

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