Sunday, 30 December 2012

Bellingham postmistress lends own money after internet loss

The BBC article explains "A village post office could not pay pensions or benefits for 11 days over Christmas after its broadband connection was cut off."

It is obviously not good if BT nicked someone else's copper to install service in a neighbouring property, but it is not unheard of (we have a customer with same problem right now).

What is somewhat more shocking is that a Post Office providing a critical service to its community and relying on an Internet connection, has a single ADSL line only and no backup.

The fault, in this case, looks like a simple human error, but the line could just as easily suffer any number of "normal" faults. It could easily take several days for the fault to be fixed.

We get this all the time with customers that now rely on Internet access. To be fair, they probably got Internet access when it was not business critical and only now find that it is. But really, if something is business critical you need a backup plan for when it breaks. They cry of "but we are losing tens of thousands of pounds a day" suggests that the customer could afford to invest a bit more in their service.

We have offered multiple line solutions for many years, and we even offer 3G backup services. We offer the various maintenance levels that BT can provide for faster repairs. But customers are, understandably, confused by the choices.

So, the plan is that we will be launching a new Office::1 package. This is separate to our existing packages, and is basically an all-in-one business Internet package.

The idea is that we will supply two new phone lines with broadband on them. By making these broadband only and new lines we reduce the chance of faults and interference and issues with extension wiring and so on. It also means one bill and one point of contact (us) for faults. We provide pre-configured and tested modems and a FireBrick, and a dongle an 3G SIM. The whole lot all set up in advance. And on top of that we will have one of the lines on BTs 7 hour fix target maintenance just in case both lines break at once.

It is not going to be cheap - that is the point - it is a proper business service - exactly what should be put in to a Post Office!

Saturday, 29 December 2012

To WoW or not to WoW

I have not had chance to play much over Christmas, but I figured that today I would play WoW.

Seems I am not alone in being a tad annoyed that it is not working - arrrrg!


Friday, 28 December 2012

Alan Turing Monopoly

Well, apart from lack of use of £ for currency the cards are wrong. Whilst most list Hut and BLOCK as typical house and hotel, the "Bletchley Park" property square lists House and BLOCK.

Naturally my pedantic co-players would not allow building of houses when the bank only have huts.

Not impressed.

Engineers always find a way

What, no bottle opener, no problem.

Wow! Monopoly

I was pleased to get a World of Warcraft Monopoly set for Christmas. Thank you.

But this makes my gripe over the currency in the Alan Turing set even more so. In that set, instead of £ (pounds) for currency, they use a generic Monopoly Money M currency.

Given that they are happy to use an appropriate currency for World of Warcraft (i.e. Gold), why not use pounds for the Alan Turing set????

Seems BTs 7 hour fix is also a con

We have been wanting to "test" the 7 hour fix option, and we were fortunate in a way that a member of staff had a line with a fault and was happy to test. It is, in fact our escalations manager, Shaun. The fault was one that was permanently there and showing on BT's own tests which recommended reporting a fault (copper joint failure). It was not affecting the broadband (well, it may mean it is slower than it would be without a fault), so we were able to wait for a convenient time to test, and also ensure the line was set up for 7 hour fix before hand.

Shaun was planning to test on Christmas morning, but was a tad busy (not surprisingly). However, he did test last night.

BT did nothing on the fault for 11 hours - no comments on the fault report, no booking an engineer, nothing. Then, this morning they "progressed the job manually" and booked an engineer who has now turned up some 12 hours after the fault report.

So, it seems, that the 7 hour fix (which is meant to be BT working on the fault 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, night or day) is clearly a con as well, at least in my opinion. BT clearly had no intention of even trying to fix faults in that time frame, even when it is simply a copper line joint fault that can be fixed by a simple engineer visit and even when it was reported on a normal working day (not even Christmas day!).

I am wondering if we need to pressure OFCOM on this - BT should stick to their contractual agreements, yet it seems routine for them to let ISPs down, which means we disappoint our customers. BT have a monopoly on fixing the national infrastructure they inherited that is the BT network, we cannot work around that by having someone else work on faults. The compensation for failing to meet their targets is tiny so they have no real incentive to actually meet them. It is a sad state of affairs for someone that claims to be "World Class" in their business.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Apparently, getting fault fixed within the agreed time is only for "critical" customers.

We have issues with people in BT understanding the basic agreement that BT plc have made from time to time. One of the key areas is that BT have agreed to fix faults within 40 clock hours. There is, of course, compensation (peanuts) agreed for when they fail, but for their contract not to be a total sham and fraud, they have to at least try and do what they have agreed.

So, a fault report today, has a contractually agreed service level guarantee of 40 clock hours from reporting, though engineers are only appointed on working days, which limits them to somewhat less than 40 hours when we get near weekends and bank holidays.

Offering a first available engineer visit of 5th Jan is quite clearly way outside the 40 clock hours target by a huge margin. It looks like 200 clock hours before they start looking at fixing this fault. So, as per the agreed process, we are escalating the issue within BT.

What is odd is that I have got the response from BT:-

"Having said that if the customer is so critical I advised you to contact your CRM and who will in turn contact the DSO to get the issue resolved."

So, it seems that expecting BT to meet is :-
  1. Only for "critical customers"
  2. Something that has to be raised to director level in BT to get actioned.
You would think that it is somewhat inefficient to involve people at that level for a simple customer fault. Obviously all customers are, in a way, critical to us, and some even pay extra for 20 or 7 hour fix targets in BT. This customer is not critical enough that they pay for this extra fast repair target, so they only expect the normal 40 hour target. Seems BT do not care about what they contractually agreed.

What can I say. I think we may have to go ahead with the plan to get all staff a 5p share so that we can all go to their AGM and ask if this is considered acceptable by BT's director.

Monday, 24 December 2012

You don't pay for nothing

It is bad enough when adverts are plain silly or misleading, and even when they have bad grammar...

But this is even worse - they appear to be suggesting that using an iPad to watch Sky Go while fishing will cost nothing. "You don't pay for nothing."!

They seem to forget that mobile data has a cost - and whilst some mobile contracts will have "inclusive data allowances" of some sort, ultimately that is what you pay for every month. Some packages will have a straight cost for the usage. Streaming video could cost quite a bit.

Oh, and not forgetting the foot note, that says Sky TV Customers. Lets understand this - people that *do* pay sky money get this, yet "you don't pay for nothing"...

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Damn WiFi captive portals

We had the A&A xmas dinner last night, and the hotel had Free WiFi. It was free to guests in the meeting rooms and the restaurant, but needed a password.

So many ways they could do it, but for some reason it was done as BT Openzone WiFi. Why the hell?

First off, why not just have a WPA2 password - simple - easy - and works on everything (even my camera). But what the heck - they are in a secluded spot with a large floor area - why not have an unsecure wifi for the meeting areas. After all, anyone able to get to the wifi could ask reception for the password to use. That would, by far, have been the best option.

But no, it is Openzone with a web portal.

I recall being slightly impressed that iThings automatically pop up with the login portal page when you select such a WiFi. I assumed it was a feature of the WiFi association or DHCP somehow. That would make sense. But no - it seems Apple simply try and access a known apple web page and if that not as expected then the pop up whatever they do get assuming it is an access portal.

Clever, but not quite what you want as it is an apple.com page. Why the hell not a special portal.apple.com domain which one could intercept at DNS level to provide a welcome page on a wifi. What they have done only really works with a captive portal at IP level, which is a pain to do.

A better way would be portal.apple.com or some such as a domain.
A better way still would be an RFC defined portal.invalid, or some such.
Even better would be a DHCP attribute for "welcome URL".
One could perhaps do a Bonjour style "welcome" domain on the LAN.
So many ways that could have been so much more standardised and flexible.

OK, so why the rant - it worked didn't it?

Well, yes and no. Sorry BT Openzone, but you are severely broken - just try and use an iPhone or iPad at an event at the hotel. Even when I have tried to use such things at BT Tower it is as bad. Every damn time the phone re-associates at a WiFi level (i.e. every time you go to use it) it wants the damn portal and password again. That was getting so tedious it was unreal. And then, to top it all, my camera wifi could not work, so ended up camera wifi to iPhone personal hotspot on to 3G to get a few photos on to the web, and then download via Openzone on to iPad, crop, and post to facebook. How annoying.

Anyway, by far the facebook star of the even was Jimi - who took masquerade ball to a whole new level. Well done, and I do hope everyone enjoyed themselves.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Start of the 14th Baktun?

So, we have started the 14th Baktun now? Wikipedia has lots on the Mayan calendar and explains the time units. Overall it is quite impressive that they managed to work out the cycles of sun and moon so well, but I suppose it simply means they were careful to observe and record things - something of a scientific approach perhaps.

Having done lunar billing long ago, I am almost tempted to do solstice/equinox billing for people that want quarterly billing but on more "natural" quarters. Once again, it is interesting to see some of the confusion on this. My wife, for example, is adamant that the winter solstice is always on 21st December, forgetting that actually the days do not fit neatly in the year (hence leap years), so, of course, there will be some variation. Again, wikipedia to the rescue, and you can see, as you should expect, that the winter solstice varies by around a day, from morning of 21st to morning of 22nd depending on the year. She is having none of it, for some reason.

I know of people that are adamant that the lunar cycle is 28 days, but in fact it is around 29.5 days - as can be seen by just looking at a calendar or diary with the lunar cycles marked in it. Or, dare I say it, looking out of the window!

And then we have the whole "blue moon" thing - which has various definitions, and seems to date back to the date of Easter being a particular lunar cycle from the start of the year and some years having a "false" (or "blue") moon that was not Easter as too early. These days it seems to be more commonly "The second full moon in a calendar month", but even that depends on your time zone, of course.

I have to say, I was amused at the apparent fact that "Tourism Australia's Facebook page was bombarded with posts asking if anyone survived Down Under" [Daily Mail]. How do people think the "world ending" could happen in one place before the rest. It amuses me that people think that something like this could happen - that any force or event that could end the world would fit to the way we happen to label years or hours or time in general - like people thinking the world would end on the year 2000. Itis almost like people think time zones are some sort of clever "time travel" type thing, and talking to someone in Australia is like talking to someone that is in the future by a few hours - I bet some people think like that.

But then people are often not rational, what can I say.

At least if the Mayan's had still been around, and had computers, they would have fixed their "millennium bug" issues long ago, this being not the first baktun. That said, apparently there is meant to be a number of baktun in a pictun, and that is unclear if it is meant to be 13 or 20, though if this is baktun number 14 now, that means we started the second pictun (start of baktun number 13) a long time ago given that the Mayan's seemed to understand zero so this is the 15th baktun now really. OK, I am basing all of this on stuff found on the Internet - but then so is pretty much everyone else :-)

If it helps, today is Setting Orange, the 63rd day of The Aftermath in the YOLD 3178.

Monday, 17 December 2012

I thought my typing was bad

Last Action(s) taken: The engineer went out today on this was not carring the correct euipment hance was unable to complete the task.

We apologize for the inconvinience.

We wontacted OR who confirmed that once this task is closed today they will send a new tentative which post accepting you can request for an expedite of this Order as this is an OR error.

I just love the "wontacted" bit. Pesky wabbit :-)

Sunday, 16 December 2012

"No contract"

Why do I even watch adverts? They annoy me. Apart from "removes up to 100% more plaque" and the like, I get annoyed at people selling stuff as "no contract".

I think they mean to say that the contract does not the have a minimum term / tie-in that many others have. But saying "no contract" has specific meaning. It is quite valid to create an agreement that is "not intended to create a contractual relationship".

Agreements do not have to be a contract, it is just assumed that most are unless otherwise stated. There are exceptions - domestic arrangements are usually not, so my saying "If you wash the dishes I'll give you extra pocket money" to your kids is not legally enforceable as a contract.

The main difference between an agreement and a contract is that a contract is legally enforceable via the civil courts, and a non contractual agreement is not, it is said to be bound by honour only.

Bets with a bookie never used to be contracts by default (that may have changed). Oddly, postal services from Royal Mail are (apparently) not supplied under a contract.

Non contractual agreements can be very sensible in many cases - usually where the primary remedy if one party breaks the agreement is that the other party also does not do what was agreed, and both sides are happy that there is no further remedy required.

So, advertising, say, internet service, on TV with "no contract" is dodgy in many ways. For a start, anyone that does understand may find it rather a concern that a company would not be enforceably bound to provide the service they offer. However, it it rather nice that the customer is not enforceably bound to actually pay for it either. They say "terms apply" in the small print, and that is not entirely inconsistent with not being a contract - an agreement can have terms - just not enforceable ones.

If I got such a service, and did not comply with their terms, and they took me to court, I would simply point out that as per their advert the agreement was clearly not intended to create a contractual relationship and so there is no case to answer. No idea what a judge would say, but they should understand the principles of contracts and non-contracts well enough.

Tracing an IP address

One of the problems with trying to promote means to achieve privacy in relation to the Internet is that you are seen as wanting to promote wrong doing which privacy facilitates (copyright infringement, terrorism, etc). Some of us realise there is a right to privacy and a very real concern that without people fighting for privacy we could find ourselves in a big brother style police state.

So, I had an idea. It is relatively simple, and I am tempted to implement it as it would have almost no cost. I do need to try and get confirmation that it is legally sound, obviously.

The plan would be to offer a new "PPP service" to customers. Anyone buying this is, and this is probably crucial here, not buying an Internet Access service from us. They are buying a PPP connection only. The service has initial proxy LCP and authentication (done by a BT proxy) but after that it is raw PPP to a pre-defined endpoint. There would be no requirement to run IP (either IPv4 or IPv6) over it even. It could carry any PPP protocol following standards or not, encrypted or not. We would provide a choice of endpoints to which this PPP connection is made via L2TP. These endpoints need not even be in the UK, but it probably makes sense for one such endpoint to be a box in our rack (but not owned, operated, or controlled by us). When making the L2TP connection we would not pass on the circuit ID.

The far endpoint will typically be an LNS (i.e. something that handles PPP over L2TP and connects to the Internet, allocating an IP address dynamically). This LNS would not be ours, and the owners of this endpoint would have no details of our customers or any contract with them. Indeed, they may have no contract with us either, if that helps.

So what would this mean exactly?

Well, we would not be an ISP in this case, and would have no IP address to log under the Data Retention Directive. We would not be subject to the Digital Economy Act as we would not be providing Internet Access, and even if a judge decided we were, we could not process a Copyright Infringement Report as we would not have a record of any IP being used. We would have contact details for our customer, of course. The plan would be that this would be like our Home::1 tariff.

The operator of the LNS would be providing Internet Access and so be an ISP, in many ways. However, for the Digital Economy Act they would not be as they have no contract with the subscribers. They have no details of the end users. This also means that they have no details to give up if they were to receive a Norwich Pharmacal Order (court order to hand over customer details). They would have no circuit ID either, so even if they were to give up that the connection came from us, we would not be able to identify which customer it is. As we would not be an ISP we would not even have logs of times of connections. This is even more complex if the LNS provider is not even in the UK.

Some of the daft things proposed, like filtering adult content would be thwarted too. We would not be an ISP so not liable to do anything. The ISP would have no contact details for end users so could not ask them if they want filtering or not. Depending on definitions in the legislation they may not be covered - e.g. the Digital Economy Act requires an ISP to have a contract with subscribers to be applicable, so laws like that fall flat on their face.

What would it not change?

Anyone with access to routers in the Internet would still be able to dump or intercept traffic for an IP address, and would do so if subject to a court order. In theory, as an ISP, we could be required to dump traffic for a customer connection, which would then allow the current dynamic IP to be found (if there is one). Obviously use of encryption on the PPP link helps, as does end to end encryption and the LNS being in a different country. It means that various laws can still be used actively to track crime to some extent. It is only really retrospective tracking that would be made difficult, and copyright trolls, and so on.

Who pays?

One issue is who pays the LNS provider. This is where renting rack space to an LNS provider in our rack would be handy as traffic would still use our transit. We can charge for the service in the same way as usual. The commercial arrangement with the LNS provider can be cost neutral. Though, even if the LNS provider was in a separate location we could, in theory, pay them for transit which matches what they pay for their Internet back-haul. That way the LNS provider has no contract with the end users.

Will we do this?

I don't know yet. It depends a bit on some of the crazy legislation being proposed. If this sort of thing thwarts that legislation, then maybe. It would clearly thwart the DEA and NPOs (legal advice on that appreciated). The idea of a company like ours offering a service which is not Internet Access would thwart a lot of things as the laws are not designed around that. If they were, then they cover a lot of other things too and have unwanted side effects. I suppose, at the end of the day, it depends no whether there is a lot of demand for this type of service. In some ways, stupid new laws could be useful in creating demand, but personally I would rather that was not the case.

Friday, 14 December 2012

No black boxes

As some of you may know, we don't have any government snooping or RIPA black boxes on our network. Obviously we can't comment for BT or transit providers, but we don't.

However, as an ISP, we could end up with an order under RIPA to install a "black box" to monitor some customer that is being investigated by the police. Now, I can appreciate that there may be legitimate reasons that the police need to tap someone's phone or Internet access, but it has to be proportional and specific and justified. Like many I have concerns about any sort of black box ever being installed on our network. This is why I am always happy to state that we don't have any.

One of the issues is that we(I) could get an order to install a "black box" and a "gagging order" so that I must not tell anyone. I am no legal expert, but I can understand that if there is a legal court order requiring me not to say something then I can't say it. What I don't know, and would be quick to ask if ever I got such an order, is whether the law can require that I actively lie to people.

To this end, and as per a pretty standard trick (Warrant Canary), I regularly state that we have no black boxes publicly (e.g. on this blog now) and answer that question on irc and email as and when people ask. If I don't respond or decline to answer you can draw your own conclusion and blog and post about it. Though do give me a chance - even I have days off!

Would this work? Or can the law require me to actively lie about this?

So, what else could we do? Well, for a start, it is standing orders that the staff that go to the data centre should remove anything that is not correctly recorded on our equipment database. If I am bound by a gagging order not to even tell my staff, then any black box would get quickly removed.

One bright idea we had today, which may be logistically difficult, is whether we can set up a live web cam on our rack which can include a screen with current news or irc channel or some such in picture, showing that there are no black boxes. What effect would a gagging order have on that I wonder? Sadly that pretty much means two glass fronted racks facing each other, and we don't have that, so not something we can do yet. If and when we can I'll let you know.

I would hope that this policy stops anyone asking us to install a black box, as it would not be possible to do secretly. I wonder what else we could do to ensure this never happens.

[Obviously we have boxes (routers) that happen to be black, and you know that is not what I mean here]

Update: Now stop it you lot! I did not post this as a cunning way to say we have black boxes, really. We don't. I posted this so that I had something on the matter to put on AAISP's facebook page as we are trying facebook advertising (yes, really) and I can do this targeted at Open Rights Group interest groups, who do seem a responsive lot and will be interested to read about our policy on this and may rush out and buy some Home::1 broadband for Christmas. My feeble attempt at some marketing, but it does reflect my views on the idea of black boxes on my network!

16:32  * mstevens wonders if RevK has ever announced anything irc haven't managed to overcomplicate and confuse

Christmas gifts

We often get some nice gifts from suppliers and customers at Christmas, and they are appreciated and shared around the office. We send gifts some times as well, though these days one has to be careful of all sorts of corporate bribery limits and stuff.

So, we got some wine, thanks for the fluid guys... Makes sense. Not everyone here drinks, but nice.

And this morning Shaun received, with no letter or note or anything. Sheets? Was this some cryptic Christmas gift from someone?

I wonder if there is a punch line we have missed :-)

[Update: as expected it turns out that Shaun's partner ordered them with office as delivery address. Was funny while it lasted.]


A new con from BT

BT operate as separate parts, BT Wholesale and Openreach, for example. It is all BT plc, but that is how they operate.

Openreach provide the FTTC service used for the likes of BT Infinity and for our FTTC services, as a service with a hand over in the exchange. This is linked to equipment BTW operate (connecting to a BRAS).

Openreach have a 12 month term on this part. This alone is rather annoying. BT Wholesale therefore have a 12 month term for ISPs getting FTTC. Annoying but pretending for a moment that Openreach is a separate company you can see the logic.

There is now, finally, a way to migrate BTW FTTC service from one ISP to another. Yay.

This is where the con comes in:-
  1. BT Wholesale charge the 12 month term to the existing ISP even though they are not paying this to Openreach, and are getting a new ISP to take on the service
  2. BT Wholesale start a new 12 month term with the new ISP even though they have less than 12 months term to Openreach left
  3. BT Wholesale charge us £50 to do the migrate, even though it is just a port config change on the BRAS.
These last two points surely have to be to protect their BT Retail "Infinity" product - why else?

Update: Slightly odd comment from BT regarding the 12 month term: "BTW does not get paid twice." - I suppose we may have misunderstood. We have asked for clarification.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Talk talk lines

Talk talk do a wholesale access, much like BT do, and we are getting that sorted. Taking a while. We got the cables in place today but expect nothing to be live until some time January (they have a freeze over Christmas). We have various bits of integration to do once we have the connections live.

We don't yet know the quality of service from these, but they say they will be good. Our monitoring will soon show if that is not the case.

Given that we mentioned Talk talk, I am understandably getting lots of questions. Hopefully this answers the main one - pricing!

We have not actually finalised pricing, but Talk talk have been quite cunning in that they are pricing the wholesale access at almost exactly the same as BT do. It is not quite the same, but close enough that we expect, for simplicity, to make the pricing the same as BT lines. This means we should be able to include it as an option for Home::1. However, it is not clear why people on Home::1 would want Talk talk other than simply it is "not BT". The main reason for getting Talk talk lines is to allow bonding lines with BT and Talk talk so we have extra redundancy for business customers. So whilst we can do Talk talk on the Home::1 I am not yet decided if we will. I'll be interested in any comments from customers on that.

I think it is only DSL, not FTTC, but to be honest I am not sure yet. If they offer FTTC on similar terms to BT, we'll take that too. I'm assuming not for now.

We are looking at one other carrier as well, no idea on time scales for that. More when I have it.

Apply cutting corners?

Apple certainly care about presentation and quality - you can tell from the box, and the packaging of your new iPhone or iPad. It reeks of quality.

Even down to the pokey thing (does it even have a name) for accessing the SIM slot. It is a quality bit of metal, no messing about. You can put it on your keyring and it does not get bent.

Well, until now.

The iPad mini comes with what can best be described as a bent paperclip.

Steve would never have allowed it...

That was fun

Well, we had one of the first real tests of the dual redundant set-up in Telehouse today - where our main broadband links, data SIMs, and half our Ethernet customers connect.

We are upgrading core network switches so we have more ports for additional links (adding talk talk lines, and extra peers).

As you can imagine, physically replacing a core switch could be somewhat disruptive!

The design uses an "A" and a "B" side. We configured L2TP links to all be on one side a couple of days ago. We were then able to carefully shutdown BGP sessions to move all traffic off one side at a BGP level. This allowed the switch to be removed, and replaced.

It is always tricky picking when to do stuff like this. Middle of the night is all very well, but that is much harder to have people available to monitor and fix things. In this case we were quite rightly confident that this would work with little or no disruption. The main trick here is taking one step at a time, carefully, and checking everything.

Well done to Andrew, Paul and Alex on this. Even though it pretty much went to plan, this is always stressful work.

The result is that we managed to replace the switch with no impact on our broadband lines, data SIMs or Ethernet customers. In theory there would not have been one dropped packet because of this, and it looks like things did indeed work as per theory. Pings running over the system showed none dropped, as expected.

Of course, just to throw a slight spanner in the works, BT manage to disconnect most of Scotland shortly before we started. We can only guess that they are not quite as careful as us, and we have seen that they have single points of failure in their network.

We plan to do the other switch, probably in a few weeks time. The only change being that we are now monitoring one of our wholesale customers who managed to have their backup link down during the work, which had the result that you might expect, albeit only for a few minutes. We may show them how to set up nagios.

As I say, I love it when a plan comes together - you can rely on the A&A team :-)

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

International Soundcheck day

Best comments I have seen so far, International Soundcheck day...

 "1-2, 1-2, 1-2..."

A date that even Amercan's can't write backwards

Monday, 10 December 2012

Dark Side

OK, I have started a Horde character. After all Thrall is a Horde and he could do with some company... I know it is the dark side, but her, what the hell. Only just got to level 11 and leaving the starting zone.

No guild yet, but playing on same realm (Thunderhorn).

I am sure if starbucks MD had a Horde character we'd have pickets outside coffee shops :-)

I love it when a plan comes together

One of the big things for me with our new tariff has been the new order page. It is specially for the Home::1 tariff for new customers and I have spent a lot of time on it. It is especially complex as the work has been to create new back end systems and libraries to allow my next big project of "new ordering system".

The order page has a lot of checks that it does, not only on syntax of fields, but also checking on BT systems, validating the line and migration code and postcode.

The expectation is that typically people will use a postcode lookup button, or at the very least only partly complete the order form or having something wrong in some way, and be presented with details of what they still need to complete.

Well, we had an order today, and looking at the logs it was slick, and I mean very slick....

Customer went to order page and filled in the details. There are not many: phone number, migration code, name, address, bank account and pick the tariff. They are all on a single simple form.

He pressed Place order, and was told it was placed. All the checks passed - everything. He was immediately emailed full details, a copy of DD guarantee, login and password for accounts and control pages. He was immediately emailed a £1 invoice. And just over 2 minutes later got a text confirming the order is in with BT and the target date.

Tomorrow he will receive a new router and printed information pack, splitter, and a nice printed plastic card with a copy of login and IP details just in case.

I think we have managed to be quite slick for a change. I hope the customer thinks so too...

I can't be the only one that does this

There are times when I will do something the causes my internet to break, perhaps for a few seconds or perhaps longer. I am working on router code, and so not at all surprising. Some times we will do planned stuff, to test fall back and the like, so we know the link will be down for a specific period of time.

What catches me out every damn time is that when it breaks, even when I broke it, while I am waiting for it to come back - I go to just check my email.

And it always takes me a couple of seconds to realise!

I caught myself doing that this morning - we managed to totally break the core router in the office, which was entirely my fault, and while Andrew was changing it over I nearly went to check my email. I realise what I was doing, and guess what? I thought this is so silly I'll blog about it.

Yes, that's right, I went to my blog page to make a post. D'Oh!

Tell me I am not alone :-)

Doing the right thing

As it says here - I like to try and do the right thing.

This starbucks things has led to a lot of debate. I am confident that if what they are doing is legal, then they are doing what is expected. I feel the reaction to this is all wrong. We don't see people campaigning outside the other high street shops that do the same. Lots of companies do what starbucks do, and they do it because they are quite rightly trying to maximise profit for their shareholders.

So I was trying to work out what is in fact wrong here (morally, as it seems that this is legal). After much debate it seems that people feel it is wrong that money earned in the UK results in tax paid to another country.

I agree that this seems wrong. But what do you do about it? The issue is with the government, and not starbucks. Should the government do something?

My first issue is understanding why it is wrong and how far that principle goes. After all, tax is paid at many many levels. From the very front end like VAT on sales (which goes to the UK); direct costs like employers NI; more indirect things like fuel duty on delivery trucks fuelled in the UK; and finally corporation tax, which multinationals can move. But there is more. Ultimately those shareholders have personal tax on dividends and then get taxed when they spend their money with things like VAT and fuel duty and stamp duty, and the whole things goes full circle.

Even forgetting the tax, where does the money go? Imagine I ran a small business selling coffee in Bracknell, but as shareholder I lived in Slough, and that is where I spend my money. That would mean hard earning people in Bracknell paying for my coffee see profits diverted to benefit all those shopkeepers in Slough. That can't be right? Or is it fair to say "it is my money, I can spend it where I like". Can a corporation say the same?

Anyway, so what should the government do? I am not a politician or macro economist, but I can see two obvious fixes...

(a) They can make laws meaning that corporations are less able to move profits out of the UK (and presumably to move profits in to the UK either). Outcome - UK becomes a worse place to do business, and less multinationals operate here meaning less tax. Remember, a lot of the tax starbucks pay does go to the UK.

(b) They could reduce corporation tax making UK more appealing so companies start moving profits to the UK. Would that work? Of course, sadly, UK companies with UK shareholders end up paying just as much tax as it is all down to personal tax on the shareholders dividends. But the UK would get tax from other countries. Of course, if this whole thing is morally wrong, it is just as morally wrong when we (the UK) are the benefactor, surely? Or would the campaigners morals suddenly change then?

I suspect the answer is much more subtle, and one has to understand international economics to work it out.

Ultimately, we live in a global economy and governments have to operates a competitive set of laws and tax regimes that encourage businesses to trade in their country. Starbucks paying tax elsewhere is not really "wrong", it is more of a "lost sale" for the UK. So maybe we just need to make the UK more attractive, and be more competitive.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

This Starbucks thing

This is winding me up now. I am relieved to see a few people who are seeing my point but lots of people that do not. I am seeing lots of emotive arguments which, when looked at in detail, fall apart.

Companies are meant to be selfish - do not be surprised when they do what they should do!
If you don't like what the law allows, get the law changed!

The latest was that starbucks are "robbing the UK taxpayer". Well, it is not robbing if you just pay less! To rob someone you have to take. The word "steal" was used as well, which is equally wrong. Also, both robbing and stealing imply illegality, not simply something people find morally wrong somehow. If the moral wrong is simply reducing the tax paid then anyone making use of an ISA is "robbing the UK taxpayer", and even McVitie's are because they argued the VAT decision on jaffa cakes, and had they not then more tax would get to the UK tax system. They are daft examples, but if reducing the tax you pay (by legal, common and expected means) is morally wrong, then all of those things fall in to the same category.

As I raised here in another blog - some times it is hard to step back and work out why something is right or wrong. I agree, it somehow seems wrong that starbucks have paid no corporation tax in the UK. As a simple and shallow consideration of that fact it feels wrong. But can you articulate a "principle" here - can any of the protestors pin down why it is wrong, and what aspect of what they did is wrong exactly. Every attempt I see has wider reach and covers things that people do themselves and don't think wrong. The issue seems to be "big bad corporation stealing from us" and that is hard to pin down.

People really have to understand (and should already understand) that companies are selfish. The whole idea of a company is to do what is best for its members (shareholders). That means the company is selfish. It has to be. It does have to act within the law, and what is "best" can be swayed by what is needed to ensure customers buy products, which could mean not using pesticides on crops, or not charging too much, or ensuring high quality in a product, even though those things cost. But when it comes to financial practices that are legal ways to reduce tax bills, it seems obvious that any company should (and arguably, is legally required to) use whatever means it can to do that.

Lots of companies of all sizes do a variety of things that help reduce taxes. Some are "clever" and involve things that are not obviously legal.  SOme things lead to changes in the law to stop them, but until the law charges are quite legal and valid. For some reason starbucks have been attacked for doing this while loads of other companies have not been. Their old mistake is being "found out" and somehow failing to explain how "normal" this is.

It is also worth remembering that a multi national company will pay a lot of in-country taxes by lots of means, whether rates, VAT, fuel duty, employer NI, or whatever. In my businesses these are way more than corporation tax. The fact they can move some part of that taxation, the corporation tax, to the country with the best rates, is an obvious move and not a surprise. At the end of the day, if we had lower corp tax in the UK we would get that in the UK (depriving some other countries of tax?). Bear in mind the dividends are then going to be taxed personally by the shareholders, and that will happen in whatever country they are based, even if the profits are made from sales in another country and even if the corp tax is paid there too. So even if they picked UK for all their corp tax, there would be plenty of tax that the UK loses out on compared to a purely UK company operating in the UK with UK shareholders.

So, I am puzzled at the reaction of so many on this. I wonder if starbucks were to give the organisers some shares, what would happen then?

In my company, as it happens, having spent well over half a million on R&D and probably a hell of a lot more, we are finally trying to reclaim some R&D tax relief. Sadly it is only two years we can claim (we have been doing R&D for 15 years), and not even the full rate for those years. It will be handy though, and help justify more R&D in future. But this is something that many companies do not claim (through ignorance and bad advice, as we had). Doing it "robs the UK taxpayer" as it reduces our tax. It is valid, legal, and even encouraged, but will we have people campaigning against A&A because of that? A&A are a bit unusual as acting in best interests of shareholders is a lot easier when there are only two of us. It allows me as director to do things on principle (like joining ORG, and fighting new snooping laws and so on) because they are in my interests. But even so, if we can do legal things to reduce our tax bill, of course we will. If we did not we would have to charge customers more money for the services.

Maybe more people need to have a few shares. Indirectly many do via their pension schemes and savings. Yet somehow people forget that they are themselves the "fat cat shareholders" when getting annoyed at big nasty corporations.

Another way of looking at this is that there are local taxes (VAT, rates, emp NI, fuel tax, etc) which even starbucks pay in the UK. There are some taxes which end up at the other end - e.g. where the shareholders spend their money and pay VAT. Somewhere between the two there is a line. Some things are in the country that the earnings are logically made. Some are where the company and shareholders are and decide. That line is drawn in law. It allows corp tax and shareholders personal tax and so on, to move away from the original earnings. If the line is in the wrong place then the law needs changing, so target anger at the law, not starbucks!

More: Somehow this is still not getting through to some people.

OK, imagine you are MD of starbucks. Your CFO comes in and says "we have a choice". He says you can choose in which country to declare profits. He explains that doing so is completely normal established practice, common in multinational companies, and completely legal. Picking country A rather than country B will mean lowest tax paid and hence highest dividend for shareholders.

Which do you pick any why?

Remembering your legal obligation to act in best interests of shareholders and that noy doing so could lead to you committing a criminal offence and being locked up...

A chance to compare

I used to use ADSL lines at home, but these days I have A&A Ethernet services, i.e. actual fibre to the building. It has nice latency and works well. So I do not get a chance to try real broadband lines very often.

However, visiting relatives, I do get a chance to. Obviously many of them have A&A broadband lines, and, well, "just work".

What has been interesting today is that I am at a relative who has a typical cable based broadband service. I won't say who's, but it is interesting to see what most people put up with.

They have a cable modem with wifi, and a computer they connect directly (which is off). I am the only person using the Internet in the house, and using wifi from my mac, in the same room as the router.

What surprised me is that I noticed it being "sluggish" and a bit slow. I tried playing World of Warcraft and found that it had patches to download (as is often the case). It did manage 1MByte/s but after a few hundred MB it slowed a lot. It took ages to download the patch which was over 500MB. Apparently this is a "20Mb/s service" so should manage at least twice that sort of speed and maintain it. I know WoW patches can load way faster.

Then I tried playing. I had noticed already that just using irc via ssh was laggy. But WoW was showing anything from 400ms to over 1s latency. Almost as bad as playing in Rhodes. It was rather inconsistent though, and was down to under 300ms some of the time. Far from what I am used to.

I'll try and do a more direct comparison with an A&A line - perhaps after we install new broadband at this address in a few weeks. It is sometimes a surprise to see what people do put up with!

Update: I see we have DNS poisoning as well (directing NX domains to a web search page), and a lack of IPv6, and seems they do intercept the pirate bay (not that I use it, but was an interesting test).

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Open Rights Group

So, we are now members of Open Rights Group. i.e. A&A are members now.

They seem to have principles that fit well with me, and with us as an ISP, so why not. Just normal membership, nothing special (yet), but I am sure every little helps.

I do think people should be free to communicate. The idea of "freedom of speech" is one of the things the US seem to have got vaguely right some of the time. Not only is intercepting, monitoring, and blocking communications against basic civil liberties, and expensive and difficult, it is also totally pointless as anyone with anything to hide can bypass it. It only ever inconveniences normal people. That is not to say you don't have laws against things, but it is not the communications itself that should be the target of laws. Just my opinion there.

May have to look at sponsoring one of their events or doing a talk even. I am sure I could do something on the technical challenges of running an ISP, and trying to do the right thing.

Why are people campaigning to pay more for coffee?

I have not looked at the details of what exactly the likes of Starbucks are doing, but if it is legal it is legal. So what is the problem?

I can understand calls to change the law if something completely legal is felt by the public at large to be wrong in some way. But that does not appear to be what people are after. They seem to think that Starbucks should pretend the law is different and pay tax as if it was.

Lets get this straight - the purpose of a company is to act in the best interests of the company members (i.e. shareholders). If the directors have a choice of how they structure the companies finances and operations such that they make more for the shareholders in a way that is totally legal, then they have an obligation to do that. Indeed, if shareholders found that directors were choosing not to make best use of tax laws then the directors could be breaking the law. Companies are not charities - they are there for their shareholders.

If anything is wrong here it is the way the tax legislation has been written, not the fact that a company is doing what companies are meant to do!

It is odd, when there were plans to classify pasties such that they have VAT when they did not before, everyone is up in arms. The idea that pasties not having VAT could be a tax loophole that people are exploiting was never voiced.

Some would argue the lack of VAT on jaffa cakes is a clear loophole, but people don't offer to pay HMRC the VAT whenever they buy a packet, or call for the manufacturers to voluntarily hand over more tax.

Now, the VAT on a jaffa cake or a pastie is a small amount and helps everyone that buys them. Seems not to be the same issue as Starbucks? Well, if Starbucks pay lots of tax, what does that mean? I means some (more than now) of the price of your coffee from Starbucks is going to pay that tax. So it is the same thing. People buying coffee clearly want to pay more for their coffee so that some of that money goes to pay tax. People asking to pay more tax. Seems odd somehow to me.

Everyone is happy when it is themselves that are making the most efficient use of tax law, but the idea that someone else may be doing that is somehow offensive and they call it a loophole.

Update: Some of my comments from facebook - argument that jaffa cakes are irrelevant:-

Both are marginal "tax loopholes" designed to avoid paying tax. They are different loopholes and different amounts of money, but they are the same issue. If, as it seems to be the message of the campaigners, exploiting a "tax loophole" is wrong, then Gregg's and McVitie's are in the same boat as StarBucks. In general, a principle, like "exploiting tax loopholes" is not changed as a principle simply by the value of the exploit. It is the principle that matters, surely?

To be clear here, we need laws that work to allow HMRC to collect enough tax to allow us to run the country, and collect from companies and people in a way that is effective and (ha, nice word) "fair". If we have laws that fail in doing that, we need to change those laws.

However, we also have laws that make companies, by design and by law, selfish. Laws that mean companies are obliged and expected to take all steps they can (legally) to benefit the shareholders. So what starbucks is doing is what we expect a company to do, by design. Getting upset with starbucks is wrong. It is the wrong target, assuming what is happening is somehow "wrong". The correct target in such case is the law and making changes to that.

You could argue companies should not be designed like that, which too would be a change of law, but we do allow choices of companies (charity, co-op, non profit, or normal) and we allow consumers to choose who they buy from. So we pretty much have that covered.

If consumers choose to buy from a normal company that is there to benefit its shareholders, they should not be surprised when the company does just that, within the law.

It is also worth pointing out that regardless of corp tax, starbucks will be paying VAT and employers NI and rates and other ways in which companies hand over lots of tax to the UK. My corp tax bill is small compared to what I pay in NI and VAT... So they have not avoided all tax, they have reduced what they pay here.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Not like selling Mars bars

I found myself explaining the new Home::1 tariff yesterday, in the pub, as you do, and handling the question "Do ISPs pay by the gigabyte then?"

It is tricky - in some ways we do - in that the more people download the more we pay, overall, but it is more complex. We pay based on usage levels, and it is the highest levels in the day that matter. The challenge we have, and why we are "reassuringly expensive" is that we try and ensure we buy enough capacity to not be a bottleneck, even at those peak times. It would be easy to buy a lot less, and slow people down a tad in the evenings, but we don't.

This leads on to the fact that the new tariff has 25GB as the starting level monthly quota, and why we picked that that figure.

Interestingly, existing customers are moving to the new tariff, even where that means paying slightly more than before. This suggests we have the level right. What is odd is the few comments on web pages that 25GB is measly and clearly not enough.

It is, sadly, not like selling Mars bars! We cannot simply look at what gigabytes cost us, add a margin, and sell them. We have to try and pitch the tariff at a level, and to the right audience of customer types, that results in usage that causes a cost that is less than we collect in revenue. There are times of day which are not "peak" usage, and in those times extra usage is, in effect, free for us - but if everyone started using bandwidth at those times they would become peak and cost us a lot of money. The cost of bandwidth is a lot compared to what people pay. If we had only one customer, the cost of providing their bandwidth would be thousands a month - so it is a balancing act.

To that end we picked 25GB, not because 25GB "costs us £X" where X is less than the £25 we charge for the service, but because that usage level is adequate for the typical home user, and the typical home user will have a usage pattern such that the average cost to us for such users is less than the £25 we charge.

Now, 25GB is quite a lot, really. We actually looked at home users download rates, and concluded that the average home user was downloading around 14GB a month even when they have an allowance of 100GB or more of off peak download. The existing units based tariff, at the entry level of 2 units, does allow 100GB off peak (and even more in middle of night). So the 14GB is not because of a limit on usage, it is just naturally what home users are using. Looking only at those that buy just 2 units the average user downloads 10GB a month. So, 25GB is a lot and allows quite a bit of room for changes in usage patterns as more people do occasionally download and stream video.

Of course, a lot of new customers have no idea what they use, so they look at 25GB and ask "is that a lot?", or even "is that enough?".

Given the slightly negative comments that we have seen, I wonder if we have picked 25GB based on a scientific assessment of what is sensible, and we should perhaps have picked something more on an emotional level, and what people think looks like a lot. If we had picked 50GB, for example, it may seem more acceptable. Ultimately we don't expect it to make a big difference to the costs. As we see now, even giving people 100GB the average user will use what they use. Of course this logic does not quite extend to the idea of an "unlimited" tariff, as that starts to attract a different sort of customer who will download solidly rather than using what they need, just because they can. With bigger ISPs that is viable, because they have few enough people "exploiting" the unlimited usage that the average is sensible. In effect the lighter users all pay for that high usage of a few.

So, changing to 50GB entry level and higher usage of 150GB or 250GB instead, and, of course, making sure the existing customers benefit from the change too.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

I see pixels

The iPad mini finally arrived, and works. It is light, and thin, and has a nice big screen compared to some small tablets. It is thinner than the iPhone 5 (just).

It is easier to hold in one hand than a full size iPad. It is easier to type on that an iPhone.

The connector (same as iPhone 5) is indeed much more convenient than the old iPhone/pad connector.

I'll see how well it works in practice when I go to London this evening.

So far the only obvious disappointment is the screen resolution - the pixels are noticeable (even to my poor eyesight).

I would always recommend 3G models to anyone (iPad or iPad mini) as the convenience of being able to use it when out and about is excellent.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Not for salad

I just wanted to clarify any misunderstanding. Following a previous blog post some people are confused about the role of bacon bits in the diet.

They are not for salad, they are for everything. OK?


Monday, 3 December 2012

Losing the plot

From BBC news.

Theresa May says internet bill critics 'putting politics before lives'

Yes, Theresa, it is probably true that if we lived in an Orwellian state with total police control and surveillance of everything everyone does, less people will die.

Well spotted. I am glad that the only consideration is number of lives saved.

Oh, and just in case "number of people that die" is the only concern - nuking the planet is a good one - the very next day the death figures go to zero, and stay there permanently.

Interestingly, infringing basic civil liberties is what usually happens before a police state. Strangely we have history books to tell us these things. The end result is usual civil unrest and wars, and somehow that means more people dying. Strange that. Civil liberties are important you know?

The other point here is that anyone doing something they do not want seen can easily bypass any new laws. There are lots and lots of ways that are easy for anyone to do, but just that bit more inconvenient, so normal people who are not criminals will not bother.

This means the law only infringes civil liberties and does not actually impact criminals at all.

Get the message please.

Arrrrg!

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Right and Wrong

That could be a tricky subject, but the post on insurance and sex discrimination, and particularly some of the replies, led me to ponder how one can rationally decide if this change is right or wrong. I.e. questioning myself (as one should always do).

In any case in making a decision one has to consider the underlying objectives, and how you justify picking those objectives even. Often you can reduce a problem to "obvious" right and wrong objectives.

The insurance one is a tad tricky. Naturally, as a scientist, I considered the factors like statistics, and how "wrong" it is inherently to remove source data (gender) from the equation. It is, of course, right to question if the statistics on gender do in fact create a reliable predictor of future risk for insurers. I am sure they ask themselves this on every factor, including gender, and I assume the answer is yes. But essentially what we are saying is that there is a correlation between gender and risk. As any statistician knows you have to be careful with correlations. If A correlates with B, it could mean A causes B, it could mean B causes A, it could mean C is involved somehow and that neither A causes B or B causes A. It can also be a fluke, but usually there would be some cause. A recent xkcd is a good example. It shows correlations by showing maps of where certain things are common in the country. They line up - they correlate. But do that simply because they are just population maps.

One nice counter example of the use of statistics and discrimination was gievn to me. It was basically "Statistically black people are involved in more crime - therefore employers should be able to use that statistic to decide not to employ black people".  A big problem with that is that it can cause a loop. If you don't employ one group of people it is likely they will be more involved in crime, bolstering your original statistic, regardless of the original cause. Before long you have a self justifying policy.

However, when it comes to insurance, a business that is wholly about statistics, it makes sense that any factor which statistically predicts future risk is worth using. It is also very hard to see how this could create a feedback loop. Indeed, it is easy to see how high prices on insurance lead to less driving or driving slower and cheaper to insure cars, so reducing risk in future. A negative feedback that damps the effect.

So, from a purely mathematical point of view, it is obvious that insurers should be able to use any and all factors they can in deciding risk. Any policy has to result in a stable solution which is morally acceptable given the naturally selfish nature of people and companies. It is, obviously, in their commercial interests to get it right, and so to find factors which fail to be good predictors and remove them. So allowing insurers to use any factors they can, including gender, leads to more accurate risk prediction.

Now, is that "right"? Well, to tell that one has to consider whether insurance with more or less accurate risk prediction is "right". Turns out that is a lot harder to come to any conclusion on. One common method is to consider the extreme cases, and see if they seem right or wrong - that can help align your moral compass on such things.

The problem is that it comes down to the age old difference between communism and capitalism!

Lets assume you want more accurate predictions. The premise being that it is "unfair" for careful driver to pay high premiums to help pay for people that have claims. The extreme of this is an insurance company with access to a time machine. That changes insurance. It becomes a pre-payment installment plan to pay for what will happen. "Certainly sir, you can have a 27 year term life insurance policy, but I'm afraid the quote for 28 year term is rather more expensive". Arguably paying for your own claims is "fair", for some definitions of "fair".

At the other extreme you have insurance with no prediction of risk, just a cost to cover. That means everyone paying the same amount for insurance, even people that do not drive (after all pedestrians and passengers benefit too). That is "fair" as everyone pays the same. In some ways this is what we aim for in the NHS.

I can't decide which is better. Obviously, as extremes, they are both a problem. They would both cause feedback loops affecting behaviour. But without knowing which direction is better you cannot say if a change from one status-quo to another is right or wrong.

The change to remove gender is a change in the direction of the "everyone pays the same" end of the scale. If that is, in fact, "right", surely we need more changes towards that end of the scale.

Fun, isn't it?

Off to Azeroth for a bit

It has been a busy few days, a busy few weeks in fact, but I feel I am starting to get on top of things. I really do still have OSPF to finish, but ironically I have progressed the next project which is my "new ordering system" a little because of this new Home::1 tariff.

I got a bit of a break on Friday and yesterday as it was cousin(?) Hayley's 30th birthday. Had a nice party and nice dinner, and a chance to relax a bit.

Though Saturday morning was, err, fun. I personally went to Pauline's for 8am to wait in for the BT engineer to turn up to finally fix her line. Sandra took her shopping for the day. He turned up mid morning - went off to the cab to move the jumpering to a new port, and all was fine. He then insisted on testing the line, and somehow found a rectified loop, but could not actually fix that as it was not his job! Thankfully, as it was not "service affecting" he was happy to close the job anyway, which again proved the pointlessness of insisting on testing in the first place!

As I have explained before - nothing was in fact faulty - BT had just turned it off, and even right up until the engineer arrived the VDSL modem was in sync, just on a port that went nowhere (logically). Nearly two weeks of faffing, and this was an "expedited" fix, and finally back. I am shocked they have not process for sorting cock-ups like this in any timely fashion. I did not see BT's managing director offering to personally wait at the property for the pointless engineer visit...

I also had other slight stress to take my mind of the BT fun. I had made some very minor (honest) tweaks to the way DD notices are generated because the new Home::1 tariff has "on request" payments for top-ups. That is a DD done right away (2 working days) rather than the usual 5 working day notice email and so on. Sadly I broke things just slightly and people got slightly odd DD notices. What is worse is that in fixing that I sent even more confusing notices to people that do not have DD. Somewhat embarrassing, but all sorted now. Things like this always lead me to try and work out how to restructure the code to be more maintainable in future.

So, Sunday... Done some work this morning, but I am thinking I'll go and level a panda. I got the comment "Awww man a 3D rocket panda :-/" when I reached level 60 and sent Mikey a picture. Don't try and take a picture of a 3D screen on a phone :-) He is trying to catch up though, so maybe I'll add a few levels. The A&A alliance guild on Thunderhorn is finally creeping up the levels at last, but it is pretty much only Mikey and I playing. We need more gamers on line. Maybe I need a Game::1 tariff next :-)

Anyway, was a good party...

Sex discrimination

So, it is in the news that insurance companies (e.g. car insurance, life insurance, etc) are no longer allowed to price based on gender. i.e. sex discrimination laws now apply to insurance.

Once again I find myself feeling that the world has gone mad. And once again I find myself defending an industry I normally dislike.

Women campaigned for equality, quite rightly. They suffered from arbitrary and prejudiced discrimination. It is clear that such discrimination was wrong.

But ultimately, true equality is not sensible. People are not equal. It is a simple fact of life. Some people are smarter than others. Some are stronger. Some are healthier. And, in some cases, there are statistical differences that are specifically gender related. We recognise this in sports - where there is a clear difference and it is the case that a mixed gender sport would leave only one gender winning, we split the events. We even do this for people with disabilities.

The way insurance companies work is that they use statistics. Information on previous claims and on characteristics of the insured person which allow them to determine risk and hence price of insurance. They use a lot of factors, including age, health, history of claims or accidents, type of car, all sorts. They are keen to make their risk assessment as accurate as possible. They have found, just like sporting events, that gender is a factor, in both life insurance and motor insurance.

Now, this discrimination is not an unfounded prejudiced bias, but a statistical bias. It is one of the few areas where the bias is scientifically based and a reflection of reality. Forcing them to ignore gender has the impact of increasing prices for women, which I am sure is not the intention of the activists that brought about sexual equality in the first place.

But this then leads to interesting issues. What happens as more and more insurers work using in-car monitoring equipment and so price your policy based on your driving style. This is totally un-biased, but if, as is likely to be the case, they find that statistically people priced in this way get lower prices if they are women than men, will they be forced to somehow bias the pricing to make it balance? You would think insurers could say "we don't care what sex you are, just how well you drive", but that is, in effect, what they did already, and that has been banned.

There are, in some areas, anti age discrimination rules. Imagine if life insurance was forced not to consider age? That would make it impossible to get life assurance as they would have to work on the assumption that you are 105 already. After all, if not, everyone would wait until they are old to get life assurance.

There are times when I agree with Prof Farnsworth on this...

Friday, 30 November 2012

76Mb broadband?

The fastest BT FTTC services used to be advertised as "up to 80M" (I think), and now it is advertised as "up to 76M". Why?

The answer is new rules that say that ISPs have to show that the speeds they quote can be achieved by at least 10% of customers.

Why is this? and has this new rule helped?

I have trouble understanding why this was an issue. I, personally, never had any issue with use of "up to". It is clear to me that it means a maximum. It means, in essence, that I would not get faster than that speed but could get anything that is slower, possibly much slower. After all, when we had 56k modems, did anyone ever see one sync at 56k? I never did, but did ASA get involved, no!

It seems that people would buy services "up to 24M" or some such, and then complain when they got 23M, or got 2M or whatever. The fact that some, indeed many, got the 24M, did not matter, as they "did not get what was advertised". I have actually heard people say that about their broadband (not with us), and get very puzzled when I try to explain what "up to" means, and that as long as what they got "was not faster" then they are getting the speed that was advertised. But then I never understand why I have to explain thermostats to people, either!

Surely the solution to this is education. To explain what "up to" means so that people don't misunderstand. There have been a load of sensible moves to ensure ISPs provide availability checks that give realistic ideas of speeds likely to be achieved. They even went as far as insisting a range of speeds is quoted. That is all sensible, and managing expectations. It does not help with BT charging ISPs for this data, but it is good for educating customers.

So, this move has meant, for example, the BT adverts I see on my blog saying "up to 76M" instead of saying "up to 80M". Clearly, assuming they picked this based on these new rules, that means 90% of people will get less than the advertised speed. So instead of being a nice round number and a reflection of the technology and the service behind it, it is now a less easy number that is slightly lower. Does that help? Also, all ISPs are affected, so it does not really make a comparison between ISPs any better. It is also true that the "feel" of an internet access technology will depend on a lot more than the raw speed of the "tail" link. It will depend on a lot of factors including stuff "in the Internet" and not down to the ISP at all. There are differences between technologies, such as the way DSL works, the way satellite links work, and the way cable services work, which have a major impact on the way the service feels, but are nothing to do with headline speed. These are what you really need when comparing ISPs using different technologies. These new rules do not help a jot with that.

So all this does, in theory, is reduce complaints to ASA by 10%. Does that actually help consumers? I think not. I think it makes matters worse.

What do A&A do? We don't say what speed the line can go up to. For a long time we used "not faster than", but we don't even say that now. In a technical description we do explain that FTTC technology (VDSL) can, in theory, do over 100Mb/s, but that *no* customers can get that as the service is available capped to either 80M or 40M. These caps are not variable or a grey area - e.g. everyone (who can get FTTC) can get a service with a 80M cap. Their service might be 30M or 20M (see the checker!), but the cap we are applying is 80M, not "up to 80M". We're not saying "up to" at all, we're saying "look at the checker for your number". So this means we have an 80/20M capped FTTC service which looks better than BTs "up to 76M" service, even though the last mile technology is exactly the same and a specific customer may only get 30M on either service. Madness. I am not going to say "up to 76M" on a service where any customer could get more than 76M as it would be a lie, and I don't lie in adverts.

Given how irrational the original complaint of "not getting the speed advertised" was, I wonder if we can start a campaign of new complaints. When someone buying an "up to 76M" service gets 80M, or anything over 76M, they should complain to ASA. The basis of the complaint? Well, that the advert is clearly wrong and clearly a lie as they get more than the "up to" rate stated. So if the advert is a lie, what speed are others getting. Is a customer that is getting 80M losing out because others are getting 90M or 100M. After all, the "up to" was a lie, so what else is a lie in the advert? It is totally irrational, but no more so than the original complaints, IMHO.

Anyway, just my opinion.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Correct Horse Battery Staple

As some of you may know (I blogged, a year ago), we generate easy to remember, but long, passwords for various systems. The entropy in these is high (see xkcd/936 for details). The beauty of them is that they are easy to remember as they are constructed from real words.

We have some nice long word lists and have even organised them as adjectives followed by nouns to make even easier to remember. The word lists are longer than those suggested by Randall. But even if you had the exact word lists we use you still have very high entropy in the passwords. We use a true random number generator even (because we can).

There is, however, a problem, a side effect Randall did not explain. It is not just rude words (which are not too hard to eliminate from the word list) but word combinations that can be offensive.

One we noticed today, and have re-generated, is "starvingchildstillebony". None of those words are a problem on their own, but together they may be offensive.

There are some real gems that come up. But, of course, there are even more complex cases where we do not punctuate the words. I saw on facebook a hash tag of #susanalbumparty which is a bit "sus" to say the least. I suspect the word "therapist" is in our list as well...

Anyway, I think our customers are suitably understanding that a random number generator cannot really be out to get them, and they can just click to regenerate a new password.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

If you build it, they will come

That "field of dreams" type logic sums up our marketing strategy most of the time.

I have the new Home::1 tariff - you can buy it now.

Whilst we have not done the press releases yet - that is for Friday, I was hoping that linking in on the main web site would have seen someone order. Even if I have said "officially" it launches on 1st Dec.

We have over 30 existing customers switched over to it (thank you, all) - I just want some new random customer to buy it to prove my order page all works as expected and give me some feedback. Is that too much to ask?

Closest I have so far is an IPv6 visitor, who is, as you may expect, and existing customer that went no further than the order page.

Someone buy this, if not for themselves, then get their mum or dad on the tariff. You know you want to. We can even do "manager" access on friends and family lines on the control pages to allow you to see the line and order tracking amd faults and stuff if you like (ask me on irc). We have a very cool service - it works way better than many "main stream" services and nobody else does the sort of graphs we do, do they?

/me ponders that he lacks enough friends to which to suggest this tariff - but in fact, what friends and relatives I have are either ISPs or already on our service or even this new tariff. I have a party to go to Friday - maybe I need some cards to hand out :-)

Reading fiction

Putting adverts on the blog has been a controversial move.

I am pretty confident that my readers are not swayed by them unduly, but are amused by them. Indeed, this is one source of amusement in comments I have received privately from several people.

It is funny when I complain about BT's ineptitude and a BT advert comes up, or DHL when I moaned about them. Ironic that they are paying me, albeit a few pence, to slag them off in public!

But back to the fiction... This is a real advert as it appeared on this very blog for UK2NET. It claims "Speeds up to 100TB"

WTF? Seriously they need to think about that. Well, it is not a speed, but then neither is 1 Gigabit, so "per second" is assumed here. 100Tb/s is not really practical. Even LINX are not at that level, are they? The big transatlantic links are nearer 10Tb/s.

So, you need to talk the adds with a pinch of (Schwartz) salt...

A picture speaks a 1000 words

Impressive customer service from Schwartz (McCormick (UK) Limited)

I ordered some stuff on-line, and it arrived promptly. But one of the items was cracked in the post. Well, shit happens.

So, I called up the email order confirmation on my iPhone, clicked reply, took a picture, copied and pasted, and sent.

I did not say anything else in my email, so the whole process was a matter of seconds using a device already in my pocket and not having to walk to the computer or anything. Quicker than faffing with calling them or anything. Technology is great some times, isn't it.

I got a quick and very polite reply, apologising and saying they will send a replacement immediately. Well done!

Makes a change to say something nice about a company :-)

Update: A new tub arrived by post.

Stealing back Christmas

Last Christmas my parents broadband broke and BT were a pain... I blogged :-)

Believe it or not, there is a maintenance level available on broadband lines that we get from BT which has a target fix time of 7 hours, 24/7. This is a lot better than their usual target fix of 40 hours, and not working weekends.

So, what does that mean exactly? To be honest, we don't know. We do know that the compensation for not meeting it is peanuts (just like the other SLAs). But in theory, at least, BT should jump when they get a fault report on this service level.

So, I am going to put it on my parents line over Christmas this year, just in case. Last year we had a lot of argument over terms, and whether 25th Dec was a Bank Holiday or not, and so on. With the 7 hour fix, that specifically says they should be working on this, even on weekends, bank holidays, and Christmas day!

Of course, their line will be fine, such is the nature of any sort of insurance.

I wonder whether more businesses should put lines on this over Christmas, given that we can put it on a line for just a month, even. The catch is, from our point of view, that we don't have staff on call 24/7 (well, apart from major outages). Even so, we can usually be contacted out of hours (e.g. on irc) and if someone was on 7 hour fix we can try and get BT on the case. So it may make sense.

It will be interesting to ever see one of these lines with a fault and see if BT do in fact jump!

Update: We are looking to try this on a line where the line comes in with a fault late in the day, so we order 7 hour maintenance, an order which goes on over night, and then the next morning we report the fault (on 7 hour fix). Overall this should be less than the normal 40 hour target fix time, even waiting for the 7 hour fix order to be applied to the line. Sadly this only works if the next day is a normal working day as it takes a working day to apply the change of maintenance level. We'll see if that works...

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

BT Wholesale is a world-class enabler of converged network solutions?

What can I say - my sister-in-law Pauline has broadband FTTC from us. Simple.

But when we changed the phone line over to us, because it is cheaper (we do broadband only phone line on our new Home::1 tariff for only £10/month including VAT). This should be a simple records change, not anything technical.

That was over 8 days ago now. The order completed and a couple of hours later the FTTC went off line.

Now, lets be clear here, the line is in sync. All the bits of wire and fibre needed for this to be working are in place. There is no fault. It is entirely down to config on equipment. It should take seconds to fix.

They have not yet escalated to high level complaints even!

BT admit they got it wrong, and they are expediting getting this fixed !!!

If 8 days with no internet is an expedite then BT have no clue whatsoever.

We are over 40 emails on this that I have been copied on, and numerous calls, emails an echats that Shaun has been chasing as well.

Here is a selection of the crap we have received from this world-class enabler of converged solutions. Yes, that is what the sig on their email states. Like the hell!!??

Apparently BT say "Our vision for BT is to be dedicated to helping customers thrive in a changing world" which sounds like the Dilbert mission statement generator.

20th Nov, BT saying the service is ceased, but no explanation as to why
This needs to be addressed with PSTN team, wholesale will close the fault as no further action can be taken by us.

I have raised concerns with openreach who have finally agreed to get a free expedite due to their system error. We are currently in the process of clearing the tags i.e. a open modify order should be cancelled and then a cease light order to update adsl checker.

So, that seems to mean they have accepted they has system errors in the first place.

21st Nov: The modify order is now cancelled and we are placing a new cease light order which should be closed before EOD today.

22nd Nov: Unfortunately, the cease light order has taken 5 days lead time, we are now progressing with cancel and reissue activity. We are hopeful that the cease order would be completed by today EOD. 

This is a cease light order to update BTW Records and we need to review this tomorrow for further updates. 

We are still waiting for the cease order to be completed, We will keep you posted on the progress tomorrow morning by 11:00 GMT. Thanks.

23rd Nov: The cease order is delayed due to the system issue and has been highlighted to the back end team for investigation and quicker progression.

We shall revert back with an update by 10:00hrs in the morning today.

Further to update you, a bridge case has been raised to progress the cease light order and it is currently under investigation.

We will review this and will keep you posted with the updates by 15:00hrs.

24th Nov: The ASG team are from BT Operate hence they do not work over the weekends. If this is not moving further on Monday we will raise it to HLE.

26th Nov: We are chasing the ASG team to know the further actions on progression of the orders and to get the line cleared.

We will push this further with them to get the order moved and closed at the earliest today. We will update you on the status by 12:00hrs.

The PSTN order has been closed in our suppliers applications and is currently open on the back end applications. The order will be closed today and this will let us take further actions.

We are not denying the escalation to be passed to HLE team as the actions are already in place and we are waiting for the PSTN order to be completed in the back end applications.

The order should be closed by EOD today. We will review and update the status tomorrow morning by 11:00hrs.

P.S. BT's total incompetence when they have something like this that is not even an actual fault is one reason we recommend businesses have two lines.

Updates:

29th Nov: Finally, after 10 days, we have finally got to the stage that BT can START the expedite of the fix for this. What the hell?

1st Dec: Finally, with me, the MD, visiting Pauline's and staying here from 8am until an engineer arrived, we have internet back. Sandra and Pauline should get back from shopping soon. Shame we don't see BT, who made the mistake in the first place, going to such lengths.

Monday, 26 November 2012

New Home::1 order form

Well, OSPF is still on hold waiting for Paul to put together a test system, but he is a tad rushed at present. So I am progressing the new tariff Home::1.

We have the initial pricing and usage model all pinned down. It does not mean it cannot change in the future, but we have the starting point, and even a bonus on Christmas day (extra 3GB allowance added).

So, we need a new ordering page for it - a simple one, as it is targeted at single line home customers.

But we are sort of trying to do a completely new ordering system. Catch is, we can't really wait for that. So I spent this afternoon coding an order page for Home::1, in C.

We have some pretty good libraries and wrappers for sql and xml, and using curl lib and a few other bits I was able to put together some reasonably maintainable C code to handle the whole order page.

The idea is a "single form". This is not a new idea - we started with this 16 years ago with one form for mobile phone orders, and then later one form for broadband orders. I think people like it.

With the range of services we normally offer, that has not been the way to go, but this Home::1 tariff can be just one form. So it asks about the line, your name and address, what tariff you want, sortcode and account number, and bingo - ordered.

Of course I expect loads of people get errors, so the form comes back. It sanitises some fields (postcode, phone numbers) and consistently highlights fields with errors, clearly stating the problem and putting the cursor in the right place. Making sure all fields are maintained after posting the form is critical, obviously, but so many web sites get that wrong. The most common issue seems to be the "untick this to avoid junk mail" always comes back ticked after an error. We don't even have one of those boxes :-)

I think I can even do it with no cookies!

I will call it a night now I think - I have all the validation and just need the final checks on some of the response codes from the BT availability check before I can make it actually place an order. That last stage is not too complicated. I already have functions from the existing ordering system for allocation of login names, and IPv6 addresses, and so on.

With any luck, by end of tomorrow, I can have a new Home::1 order form up and running.

Then we just need it on the web site and TBB and ispreview and so on. But lets wait for some test customers first :-)

Update: I think I have it ready - just need a new customer wanting Home::1 now!
Update: On the main web site - and awaiting first order!

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Shibboleet

Shibboleet is a shibboleth that was created by Randall for xkcd. It is a nice idea. It is a keyword to say to people on support to confirm you are a member of the "leet" and know more that the average customer.

I did a blog post on this - I have told all the staff that "Shibboleet" is a magic word, and means to stop arguing and transfer the call to someone that knows what they are talking about. Of course, this is tricky as most of my staff know what they are talking about anyway, and indeed many meet the "someone who knows a minimum of two programming languages" criteria defined in the cartoon.

I think today was possible the first use of "Shibboleet" by a prospective customer. Someone that apparently not only knows programming languages themselves but makes them. Someone interested in being a customer.

So, on the irc channels, the customers on there are well aware of Shibboleet, and flagged the query to me. They were gobsmacked at finding an ISP that has an irc channel in the first place! Hopefully I gave a good impression and we have a new customer as a result. We'll see.

This may lead to the first "Shibboleet" sale we have made. Thanks Randall.