Monday, 31 March 2014

ADR

I have not mentioned ADR for a while - it was a dark time - a time of changing my views on society and the rules of law and justice beyond reason. I was not in a happy place...

But this week I have a meeting that involves ISPA. It seems OFCOM and/or CISAS are interested in changes to the ADR system. This has to be good!

To explain, for those that do not know, ADR is meant to be an alternative to using the courts to resolve a dispute, the clue is in the name Alternative Dispute Resolution. Supposedly the courts are too scary ?!?!?! It is designed to be biased in that the telco pays regardless and that decisions are only enforced against the telco - so it is in no way an alternative to court for resolving disputes. A court has power to make judgment either way and enforce it. A court awards costs (albeit minimal) against the loser in most cases. ADR is a kangaroo court type of alternative to court.

Given that the court service itself has an ADR - a telephone call to the parties for an hour to try and resolve the dispute by arbitration - at no extra cost as part of the process, having an alternative to this alternative to court is simply not necessary anyway.

The one case we had was wrong in every conceivable way, from the fact the claimant was clearly a communications provider, to the complaint being later that the 6 month time limit, to the fact that all they asked was to be "let out of the contract with no penalty" which had already been done, to the final judgment that agreed we were not in breach of contract but insisted we pay compensation and write off charge that post dated the dispute and had been agreed in writing with the complainant already. Legal advice was to pay up - in hind sight I wish I had not.

My huge challenge is keeping my cool and proposing changes that have a positive effect on the legislation and process.

This will be hard, very very hard.

One has to wonder what could change. Ideas so far....

1. Scrap it - allow courts and their arbitration option to be used instead.
2. Keep it - but accept courts arbitration as valid ADR scheme.
3. Consider loser pays a fee of some sort to discourage bogus claims.
4. Have a front end (free or covered by claimant fee) vetting of claims.
5. Have a means to reject bogus claims with no cost to ISP (as above really).
6. Have an option of lower cost simple mediated arbitration call like the courts do.
7. If must be ISP pays, allow ISP to cover court fee to allow access to courts arbitration scheme as way cheaper than any of the ADR providers now.
8. Don't have ADR for small ISPs. A size that covers us!
9. Regardless of other changes, make some clear cut rules - a point that a dispute is formally closed and so cannot ever go to ADR later (as part of compensation offer maybe). A point at while disputes formally starts (actually meets some basic criteria for a valid dispute). Remove all of the ambiguities that exist now.
10. Allow ADR opt-out by end users not wishing to burden ISP with ADR. Most of our users would happily opt-out and confirm so clearly at time of order.
11. Clarify "communications provider" exception in the law - it seems to cover anyone "operating a communications network" which could mean they are in charge of a gigabit switch at home.

Update:

We have made some constructive suggestions.
We have understood more about how CISAS work and it is better than we expected.
We have suggested the concept of a dispute over "quality of customer service" is a nonsense as (a) there is no legal basis for compensation for poor customer service (we exclude customer service from our contract even), and (b) we would not actually "dispute" such a complaint (we'd dispute a claim for compensation for such as a contractual matter which CISAS do not handle either). They were very confused by the idea that a complaint could fail to constitute a "dispute" if we do not disagree the complaint. They point blank refused to agree on a definition of "dispute" in the meeting.
However, overall, a good meeting.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

BT want to charge us for someone else's mistake

It seems that someone damaged a BT overhead cable whilst doing some work nearby.

This is not a huge surprise to us or anyone. I am sure it is easily done, and I am sure contractors have insurance for such things (probably comes under their public liability insurance if nothing else).

Obviously if you accidentally damage someone else's property you have a liability to pay for that damage. That is simple enough.

But no, it seems BT plc have some very strange ideas about this.

Let's be clear, the damage resulted in BT plc failing to meet its obligation to provide a working service to its customer, us. This was, of course, not their fault, it was because of damage caused by someone. Arguably BT plc should compensate us for their failure, and include that in their losses that they claim from the party that caused the damage. The damage wasn't our fault, or BT plc's, and so in the long run neither of us should be out of pocket.

Fortunately for BT plc this instance was not one of vandalism, it is a case where they can clearly identify exactly who caused the damage - so recovering costs for the damage should be simple. Had it been vandalism then they would lose out as they would have to fix the network at their cost. I am sure they have insurance for that.

So, with me so far? A contractor accidentally broke a cable, BT fixed it.

But hang on! We get a bill from BT for fixing the cable!!!

Obviously we dispute it, but BT say that because the contractor was working for the end user who is our customer, we have to pay for the repair.

Basically, no way - we are refusing to pay on principle, and threatening to sue BT if they don't refund us.

I mean, imagine if the contractors second cousin twice removed had crashed his car in to the phone exchange and caused £100,000 worth of damage - would we be expected to pay for that?

If *we* cause damage, then of course we have to pay for it.

If our customer causes damage, then our customer has to pay for it, but we are not bailiffs or debt collectors for BT plc, and we would not pay BT and then collect for our customer. That is mad.

If someone that works for one of our customers causes damage then this is even more removed and nonsensical that we should be involved in any way.

One wonders what would have happened if the contractors were not working for our customer, but for their neighbour or some such. Would we get a bill from BT still? Or would the neighbours telco get a bill from BT?

We'll see what they say - or we'll have a fun day in court.

Actually, look at it another way. This is a contractor accidentally damaging equipment and the bill going to their customer's phone provider. Now, if ever we had damage done to any equipment by a contractor working for someone, and the person they worked for happened to be a BT customer (i.e. had a BT line), that presumably means, by BT's logic, we could send the bill for repair to BT plc. Wow, what a wonderful scheme.

Update: BT quote a "policy":

Damage to Openreach network up to and including the NTE where it has been caused by the EU or agent working on behalf of the EU is chargeable via TRCs. This is also the case with any damage caused by the CPs or their agent. Openreach engineers will replace the standard faceplate to the NTE where it has become faulty as a result of an unknown cause and not damage, without a charge.  If however, a non-standard faceplate has been fitted, which is found to be faulty, Openreach will raise the relevant TRCs for its replacement with a standard Openreach faceplate.  Openreach shall also replace the NTE face plate where damaged by lightning, fire and flood beyond the CP/EU’s reasonable control (as set out in the preceding sections) with a standard Openreach face plate without a charge.  

For example this applies when an EU cuts down the dropwire or lead in whilst trimming creeper growing on wall, or when a builder cuts a wire whilst carrying out building alterations or when a tree surgeon damages a wire or needs a wire lowering whilst felling a tree within the EU’s curtilage.

We have asked where this fits in terms of actual contract terms. We have also pointed out that whilst tis says that damage repair is chargeable, it does not say that the CP is the one charged. The idea of charging the EU or their agent TRCs for repair for the damage caused is fine, and would be the default in case of tort or criminal damage. We're waiting for answers on that and the definition of "End User".

Friday, 28 March 2014

The new number tax

As you may know, OFCOM are introducing a new number tax which means telcos will have to pay for numbering allocations, even if they are not assigned to customers yet, even if they are the smallest allocation OFCOM give out, and even if they got them before the idea of charging was suggested, and are effectively stuck with them now as they may have one paying customer in an area with 1000 numbers allocated.

The scheme is crazy and will mean some small VoIP providers shut down if it extends beyond the initial trial areas to all area codes. It also means the numbers allocated by such providers even if ported out to other providers will stop working.

IMHO it is a crazy system.

But what is crazier is that they have a discount for numbers that are ported to another telco, and the discount is more than the original cost. 10p/number/year cost, 18p/number/year discount for porting. And the other telco does not pay anything. Very odd. This sadly only works for the in-use ported numbers, not those that are part of the smallest allocation one could get and not yet allocated to a paying customer. Paying customers would cover the 10p/year easily.

What is also interesting is that this only applies to porting, and not a commercial arrangement like reselling numbering or VoIP.

Obvious thing is to port all numbers in such areas to another company. We did that. It was my clear obligation as a company director to act in the best interests of the shareholders and do that. I'd have been negligent not to use this loophole.

Now, they clearly knew this would happen as the rules only apply where ported to telco is not part of the same group of companies.

So I ported to Incoming Numbers Ltd, a separate company that I personally own.

So OFCOM get all the paperwork from us, including the discount claim for the few numbers we have live (and ported to Incoming Numbers Ltd). Of course, Incoming Numbers Limited then have a commercial reseller arrangement to sell usage of the ported numbers back to Andrews & Arnold Ltd, but that is not porting, so does not count. They are ported. The ported to company is not part of the same group of companies. It is all good.

OFCOM said they will check up on discount claims. So today I get a call saying we (A&A) have told them that we ported to Incoming Numbers Ltd but that OFCOM have no contact details for them.

I was tempted to say "not my problem, what am I, directory enquiries?", but no, I said "that's easy, Incoming Numbers Ltd is my company, I am the contact... They are not the same group of companies though - it is a company I personally own..."

It was greeted with an "Oh!" and an obvious unspoken "I see what you did there!".

We'll see what happens. They make these crazy rules, and we follow them.

FYI, I am happy for Incoming Numbers Ltd to be moved to separate shareholders, directors, and registered office at a moments notice if they change the rules to include those aspects, obviously.

I hope every other small and large telco in the country has done likewise.

Your move OFCOM.

How do girls cope?

This is a pain - they put make up on when you go on TV, and you then use your iPhone and get make up all over the screen.

How do women use iPhones?

#notaproblemieverthoughtiwouldhave

It also seems I was "PORN GUEST X" on the Sky schedule today. Not sure if honoured, or cross! All publicity is good publicity though, they say.

Stolen copper

A different type of stolen copper this time - engineers "borrowing" pairs when installing a new line!

Whilst there is a real problem with large scale theft of cables which is a big issue for companies like BT and their customers (and our customers), but there is a much smaller crime that also goes on. It is surprisingly common.

When an engineer installs a new telephone line, or even in some cases is trying to fix a broken line, he will need to find a spare pair. A pair being the two wires (twisted together) that are used to provide the telephone service. There are big multi-pair cables from the exchange to the green street cabinets and on to smaller grey boxes (distribution point, or "DP"). For a phone line to work it has to be connected at the telephone exchange, and connected in the street cabinet and ultimately connected to the installed premises - possibly involving a new wire being run from the DP. To install a new phone line the engineer will have a port assigned at the exchange and will need to find an unused pair at each stage to get the service all the way to the house/office where it is installed.

Now, you might think this is a process of checking the records to see which of the pairs in each cable / cabinet are spare, allocating one, and using that pair. They are all numbered (or colour coded). Indeed, this is the right way to do it and what you will often find is done by the engineer.

However, there is another way, and this seems to be done quite often - instead of checking the records, the engineer simply connects a test telephone to pairs looking for one that he can use. If he finds a pair that is not in use, then he acquires it for the install, and updates the records to say he has done it (actually, we are assuming this latter step is done!).

How does he find a pair - well for a start he'll look for "no dial tone". Unfortunately this means any line used for something other than normal telephone service can get nicked. We have seen this on SDSL lines that have no dial tone. To avoid this, when we install lines "just for broadband use" we do set them up to have a dial tone, and even allow free calls to be made. That helped a lot in avoiding pairs going missing.

However, it is often the case that all pairs have dial tone, but some of the lines may be "stopped lines". I.e. lines that have had service stopped for now, and someone may want to order service later and reconnect. While stopped they are allowed to be used for a new installation.

How do you know a line is a stopped line? It has dial tone, after all. Well, you get the number by dialling 17070 and you check the records to confirm it is a stopped line. Simples.

Or... You try making a call and see if calls are blocked. Well, that would be fine, except it is quite valid to have an active line with calls blocked. All of our broadband use phone lines are like this!

Turns out that at least some Kelly engineers (contractors BT use) will do this, and may explain why so many of our lines get nicked.

What is worse is that we have found that at least some engineers use a chargeable call to 123 (speaking clock) to test if the line is active or not - costing each customer 31p until they find a line they think is stopped and they can use. This is clearly fraudulent and a breach of section 125 of the comms act as they are clearly not intending to pay for that call.

We don't know how widespread this is, but we are trying to find out, and trying to arrange meetings with Kelly and BT plc trading as Openreach to get to the bottom of it and get things changed.

How do we know this? Well one of our staff, Alex, had his pair stolen! He knew this was likely the second he saw the Kelly engineer in the hallway of his flats. And he managed to get Kelly to admit they stole the pair, and admit the process they use to find a spare pair. I sit next to Alex, and I have to say well done for tracking this down like a bulldog, and getting Kelly to actually fix the problem the same day it happened.

For the full story, see his blog post:
http://www.okcheersbye.co.uk/kelly-communications/

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Losing the plot?

I may be getting old, but I have spent all day on some code and it has fought back.

This is code I used to be able to do in a few hours, and, ironically, have done in a few hours for almost identical code many years ago. I am only re-writing because it needs to be more maintainable and more modular and used in a different environment.

But it has not been as fun as it should be, and I even gave up on one bit and gave it to Cliff to play with. That is so unlike me.

I spent over an hour today chasing the fact I used gettimeofday(&tv) by mistake instead of gettimeofday(&tv,NULL) and left the include out that would have warned on the mismatched prototype. Stupid arse mistake if ever I made one.

The issue being the 2nd arg was random stack content as a pointer to which to write the timezone, and that corrupted the stack and crashed the forked process. Every minor change, just adding or removing printfs for debug changed it from not working to working or back again. And even valgrind, my friend in times of need, let me down.

I must be losing it.

Anyway, I'll sleep on it, and tackle the problem again tomorrow. Hopefully Cliff will have sorted some simple alaw V.23 demod for me. It is not hard, and seriously I have done this many times before, but I could just not get it to work.

With any luck, in a few days, I'll be able to blog on how wonderful this little bit of code is, but right now I feel like I am getting passed it.

P.S. Thanks for all of the "helpful" comments about use of -Wall. Obviously, after 35 years of coding, I did not know about compiler warnings, d'uh. This is, indeed, something that is normally set for everything we are doing, and the lack of it in the Makefile in question was, perhaps, the first mistake. I am used to it being set, and is on most of the Makefiles we have. The lack of such warnings, which I am used to being given by the compiler, made it that bit harder to spot the stupid mistake. I have instigated a bit of a witch hunt for any code being compiled without -Wall now though.

Monday, 24 March 2014

BSA busted

The BSA were, apparently, busted for using someone else's picture on their facebook adverts.

They seem to have changed the image now, but I am still not convinced that it is out of the woods here.

They are stating, in an advert, "report unlicensed business software and get paid".

This is not "you may get paid", it is "get paid", for just making a report.

Now, the web site, where you make the report does say, if you click on a FAQ item, that they will only pay up if they choose to pursue the victim of this report and get a financial settlement.

So, in my opinion, the advert is at least misleading. I think, based on reading a contract law book (armchair lawyer, that I am) that the advert could be construed as an open contractual offer in its own right. One that is broken if, after making such a report, I do not get paid!

I did try and make a report of a business using unlicensed business software but it only allows reports of specific vendor's software, not any unlicensed business software. So that is misleading for a start.

The software I was going to try and report is called "clueless", and Andrews & Arnold Ltd use it daily, with dozens of staff using it, with no license whatsoever.

[for those that do not get the joke, "clueless", like most of the software used by A&A is developed in-house, and as such needs no license. None the less, it is therefore "unlicensed business software", so meets the offer in the advert]

Maybe I need to report the advert to the ASA.

I do hope the owner of the stolen photo sends them a bill for its use.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Should we sell phones?

OK, bit of another poll here...

Should we also sell phones?

Obviously SIM free. But my feeling is there are two ends to this. One is the dirt cheap "burn phone" type Nokia 100 for £20 or so. These are great phones just for calls and texts and have the battery life of a [fails to find analogy].

We'd not expect them to break or be a hassle for repair/replacement.

At the other end of the market are things like the Somin phones. They are robust "Builder's phones", and they manage replacement for any sort of damage for 3 years for us. So again, no hassle.

I am wary of selling anything in the middle as they are likely to be hassle, one way or another. Maybe I am wrong.

What would people buy from us if we sold phones?

Long day

Is this what they mean by a "burn phone" ?
Well, that was a long day - in the office before 7am (as usual) but zebra picked up the printer at 7:12am. They returned it around 6pm. I have only just got back home at 8pm.

We now have a "contact station" again, and I will have to make the interface a bit neater. But we are working again.

Some experimentation shows that the "inhibit" layer on the cards around the voice SIMs is just right to tear the colour ribbon. I have had to make a few tweeks, and will be doing a lot of testing tomorrow. I am planning to get some free SIMs out to people that had SIP2SIM last year. That should be a really good test of the printer as it is quite a big mail shot.

The good news is that we have the printer back. Sorry to say that SIMs ordered today (after around 7:12) did not get out in today's post.

So, well done Zebra for sorting this, and for taking on my various comments on the documentation, etc.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

What do you pay for your mobile?

My grandson's phone
I am a tad out of the loop here - I had SIP2SIM for a long time, then had a horrid giffgaff thing, and now back to our SIP2SIM service. My phone is a company phone, so in some ways it does not matter what it costs - but I own the company so in other ways it does.

I am really a bit behind the times on what people pay for their phones these days, and I am interested to see how things stack up.

I used to sell Orange phones, and they had packages for monthly fees and call charges. These days a lot of stuff is included, though, ironically, freephone calls are often extra even now.

Of course, for a long time, phones were so expensive the mobile contract was a tie-in to cover the cost of the phone. I am frankly shocked at how cheaply a phone can be made these days with retail prices of SIM free phones starting under £15 inc VAT! Yes, smartphones cost more, and Apple doubly so, but even some Androids are SIM free in Argos under £100.

Do clearly, the cost of the phone is less and less of an issue for the mobile contract and finally (I hope) we are seeing more "you buy what phone you like" being completely independent of "you get a SIM for a service you like".

Also, I assume, gone are the days of the coverage wars. When I was selling Orange - coverage maps were king. These days there are always some black spots and some places with one network beating another, but coverage is ubiquitous for most. Am I right?

So, really, what are people paying these days, and what do they get?

The reason I ask is simply because of the service we are doing with this SIP2SIM. It is really aimed at businesses but I think it has a place for "normal phones". Last time we did this, I tried with some of my kids, and was surprised at the bills. What killed it was texts, and the cost for texts. But that has changed. No more are texts the thing - it is facebook messages, snapchat, iMessage, and so on, at data rates that are (a) mostly on wifi, and (b) a fraction of the costs of texts.

So I think, to be honest, a "pay for what you use" arrangement may make sense compared to the packages for my kids. Some are trying it now, even my 5 year old grandson. They, being family, do have the advantage that we charge them cost prices, but even at our normal retail I can see this working well.

Some people on irc have done sums and said we beat the mobile package they were on hands down, even paying us for inbound calls! It depends what you do - if you make lots of long calls all day then maybe not, but a lot of people now seem to make few and short calls, relying on iMessage and facebook and email (again, mostly on wifi).

I tend to make a mobile call long enough to walk to my desk phone and steal the call over to that, and use data and calls occasionally when away from the office. For me it is way cheaper, even as a company / business phone, than the £5/month I was paying giffgaff. It is a lot less hassle for me, and, of course, unlike every UK mobile operator it means I have ACR as required by law for over a decade now. I also get call recording of my mobiles (which I am sure financial services companies would love).

The prices we are selling at are (+VAT) £2/month, 2p/min for calls, 2p/text, 2p/MB for data. Yes, we tried to make it simple. No min term, just monthly rolling contact. Charged by the second and by the kb, so short calls and iMessages and so on are a tiny cost. We do a VoIP number for £1/month and calls as low as 1p/min with a 2p min charge. Even adding that to your outbound calls the overall cost is pretty low.

So do A&A SIMs, with a geographic number, actually work out competitive to typical teenage kid or even business phone packages?

I am thinking yes, at last, they might be - what do you think?

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Zebra ZXP8 contact encoder fiasco

[See update at end]

Read this if you want to use contact cards (SIMs, smartcards) with a Zebra.

I blogged a little while ago how the Zebra ZXP8 lists "encoding options" including a "contact station" and how it turns out that this does not actually do anything - it runs the contacts to a 9 way D type at the back.

I made a bodged up work around with a Raspberry Pi and a USB cherry keyboard card reader PCB and 9-way D type. It worked, but was a bodge.

Zebra wanted around £500 for the upgrade to the "contact/mifare encoder" and another £500 to install it, but after my blog they said they would install on-site for free. I was prepared to give Zebra £500 to "do it right" and not use my bodge.

Well, on-site turned in to off-site but sending a car to get it and return it that day.,

Then "same day" turned in to collect Friday and send by courier Monday for arrival Tuesday.

Having finally got the printer back with the "proper" reader, I just needed to use the SDK test app to talk to the card so I could dump how it did it. I was not expecting any support on their underlying protocol, as it had been easy enough to decode so far, but we had installed the drivers and SDK demo on a windows machine (again, as last one was nicked). But no joy - it still did not see the cards or allow any commands to be sent or anything.

I chased this up with support, especially as I noticed a comment in the config along the lines of comms_channel=usb_2_0. Hmmm. I was reassured "ethernet should work fine". We had, after all, bought an Ethernet connected printer. The printer is not in the same building, let alone the same town, as the machine that does the printing of cards.

Finally, after waiting all day I am told that no, the contact encoder does not actually work over the Ethernet interface at all - the printer does not talk to it. It simply has a USB hub and presents the reader on the USB port. I got a printer with Ethernet for a reason! But they have a workaround, which is to buy a "ZBR-PS300 module" which looks to be a few hundred more.

None of this in the the brochure.

Talking to a contact card is technically simple, even to just bit bash or use a serial port. Insisting on a dedicated "encoder" is not totally daft, but you would make it talk to the controller in the printer, obviously - just like the mag stripe encoder does. It is not rocket science. I am shocked that the whole thing is designed so badly and sold so badly at every single stage. It took 5 months of asking how we talk to the contact station to get an answer that we need the mifare module, and now to find that also does not actually do anything without yet another module is beyond belief.

So, if you want to do card encoding, it cannot all be cleanly integrated without a lot of extra modules at a lot of extra cost. What I recommend is a cheap USB card reader, and wire its contacts to a 9-way and use the contact station option. Far cheaper and no less messy than their proposed solution.

In the mean time, I've published my linux command line printing tools here, as Zebra do not do such a thing.

Right now I am waiting for them to undo this mess, re-instate the contact station, refund what I paid for the upgrade, and at least apologise.

Update: Zebra have discussed this and decided that the contact station and our our reader is probably the way forward and they are changing that for us tomorrow. Yay!

Update: Zebra have returned the printer to a contact station, and we are getting a refund for the mifare encoder. We now have it working again, and integrated in to our printing tools.

I am not a drain

One of the surprisingly common mis-spellings (or perhaps mis-typings) of my name, Adrian, is Adrain.

I normally reply with "I am not a drain".

Sadly, I encountered this in the lobby today...


Saturday, 15 March 2014

Stuff

Yes we are doing custom printed SIM cards!
What a week!

It has been hectic - for a start I have had a chance to do a bit of coding. The launch of the new SIP2SIM stuff has meant lots of work in all sorts of areas. We have the coding on the call servers themselves (FireBrick) which is pretty mature but had a couple of bugs. Some people have been testing SIP2SIM with IPv6, which is good. But then there are all sorts of other aspects - the SIM provisioning (loading on our database); the SIM printing; the SIM ordering system; the CDR (Call Data Records) collected and stored; the billing; handling texts each way; documenting feature requests to the telco; lots of testing. In short I have been busy.

Thrown in to the mix is that Zebra agreed that they would upgrade the card printer on site, free of charge, if we paid for the upgrade part, so that we have the proper card reader interface. This is all part of the provisioning for SIMs - pulling them in to the printer, reading the ICCID, checking details on our systems and at the telco, making up SIM specific artwork and printing, all in one seamless operation. Until now I have had  a bodged system with a Raspberry pi, a part from a cherry keyboard and an old serial lead. The new part will allow this to all be sorted as part of the Ethernet connection to the printer. Unfortunately they then decided they could not do it on site! So they sent a taxi to get it, and would return it later that day. Then they day they will not be returning it until Tuesday. So my plan to code the changes for the upgrade, and the whole new streamlined SIM printing and shipping process are somewhat thwarted.

Of course, on top of all that we have the fact that the main office was a crime scene all morning on Friday. We lost some iMacs, 30" apple monitors, iPads, and a laptop. Very annoying. Now we have to review what we could have done better. Most of the obvious things probably would not help in that they could have just broken a window and grabbed stuff while the alarm range and left quickly enough not to be caught. So practical steps are nothing to do with the door locks or alarm, but simple things like using Kensington locks to tie expensive kit to the desk. Anything they cannot grab quickly is probably safe, especially if the alarm is ringing. It has been an expensive week.

What gets me is they knew enough to turn off the iPads to stop them being tracked, but did not know enough to realise that a stolen iPad is useless. Anyway, the laptop is now on a Virgin Media line, so we'll let the police know that IP.

So, all in all, I am looking forward to next week - it has to be better.

They brought this along

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Emailed VAT invoices

We (A&A) email invoices. We always have (though, once upon a time you could have them faxed). What is relevant here is that we don't post a paper invoice to people - they are always sent electronically.

Indeed, I was recently made aware that my accounts staff are routinely posting invoices to a dozen or so customers every month. This should not be happening, not without an admin fee for doing so. We issue thousands of invoices a month and printing/posting them would significantly impact our business model. It is unnecessary and obviously has an environmental impact as well.

Emailing invoices is something we have done for a very long time, and we have had the occasional complaint. We do take a lot of care, ensuring the plain text email meets the requirements, and even digitally signing them so as to meet EU requirements. We attach a PDF so that a clean print can be made if a paper copy is required internally, and as the first ever "print" of the invoice it is the "original paper copy". We can even attach XML data. We also have a secure web site to access in HTML, PDF, or XML as needed. We could not do more to help people if we tried.

Oddly, it was whilst posting about www.legislation.gov.uk not updating SIs that I spotted a snag that may have affected this from 2 years ago.

Section 13A of The Value Added Tax Regulations 1995 as added by section 5 of The Value Added Tax (Amendment) (No. 6) Regulations 2003 and as modified by section 2(4)(b) The Value Added Tax (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2012 states "The document is not to be treated as the VAT invoice required to be provided by the supplier under regulation 13(1) unless the use of the electronic invoice is accepted by the customer" which appears to contradict scheduled 11 section 3(1) of the Value Added Tax Act 1994 which states "For the purposes of any provision contained in or having effect under this Act which relates to VAT invoices a person shall be treated as issuing, or as providing another person with, a VAT invoice if the requisite particulars are recorded in a computer and transmitted by electronic means and without the delivery of any document".

Those "regulations" are Statutory Instruments (SIs) which are secondary legislation (easier to pass than the primary legislation, i.e. Acts).

My understanding is that Acts give power to SIs in the first place. If the Act states "For the purposes of any provision contained in or having effect under this Act which relates to VAT invoices..." then it is stating that the text in those SIs is read in that context. So the Act trumps the SI.

Basically, the SIs seem to state that we can only legally meet our requirement to send a VAT invoice if "the use of the electronic invoice is accepted by the customer" which means a customer can insist on a paper copy. By the way, I see nothing saying that supplying a VAT invoice on paper has to be "free".

But the Act, in scheduled 11 section 3(1), is clear that we have met our obligations by sending the invoice electronically.

So I believe that a supplier can insist on sending invoices only by electronic means, and meet the legal requirements for issue of a VAT invoice, and that a customer cannot insist on a VAT invoice "on paper".

What we need is HMRC to make a clear statement to that effect.

www.legislation.gov.uk

There is a principle that we should actually know the law, at least as it applies to us. "Ignorance [of the law] is no defence". But there is now so much legislation that this is proving very hard. Indeed, I read that some tax laws are so complex they are challenged on the basis that nobody, not even an expert, could know the law.

Obviously some of the time there are specific complex or far reaching laws that spawn a whole set of useful FAQs, guides, and even leaflets and adverts to ensure people are aware of the new legislation. Even so, at the end of the day, the actual Acts and Statutory Instruments that support them are the starting point for understanding the law that applies to us all.

There is now, and for some years, a very useful site. Anyone reading my blog will have seen links to the site (at top of every page and in many posts). It is www.legislation.gov.uk. It is really really useful.

In order to read and understand legislation, you have to be a pedant and have some legal training. I fail at the latter, but I can work my way around a lot of it with no problem. Occasionally some of it is pretty simple.

The nice thing is that, for Acts of Parliament (i.e. the big laws) they not only show the acts but also the amendments as they happen (or soon after). They even flag up pending amendments. This is quite important as, obviously, it is the current version of a law that applies to us all. I have had people confidently quote The Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998 not realising that fixed penalties were added in 2002.

Unfortunately, from what I can see, some types of legislation such as mere "Regulations", usually done by Statutory Instruments, are not updated on the web site. I have not yet found the description of why this is, of even if that is the rule.

So, for example, if you look up The Value Added Tax Regulations 1995 you get a message "Status: This is the original version (as it was originally made). This item of legislation is currently only available in its original format."

This is subtle, and easily missed. It means that one can be shouting at someone in a shop based on outdated information (e.g. Argos). Before I make a spectacle of myself I like to check I am actually right, and feel somewhat embarrassed that I made a minor error. In this instance the requirement for a full VAT receipt was £250 not £100. I was still right, in that the order slip did not meet the requirements of a simplified receipt, and Argos did lots wrong (issuing a credit note!) but I do not like to make mistakes like that in the first place.

So, I wonder, why do they not update SIs, and how do we convince them to do it?

In the mean time I have found the changes search that allowed me to check all changes to section 16 of that regulation quite quickly. Given they already file all of this, one wonders why they don't actually update the web site with those changes.

Anyway, I would recommend www.legislation.gov.uk highly to anyone that wants to check facts.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

I am not a consumer!!!

According to Nominet, and I quote "Adrian Kennard is not a consumer"

They do not explain that assertion, but they have decided that they will now publish my home address on one of my domains and prohibit me from opting out because I am not a "consumer".

Their own rules do not use the word "consumer" at all, they reference individuals.

I am clearly a consumer, and an individual. I buy the domain from Andrews & Arnold Ltd, and am invoiced for it at my home address as an individual and pay for it from my personal bank account. You do not get much more "consumer" than that!

The domain in question (find.me.uk) has O/S maps I downloaded when they were made free. No adverts or pay for click or any such. My placement of the maps on there is not a business of anything commercial. It was a fun exercise to do the O/S maps.

Even so, they have not asserted that I am using the domain for something commercial, they are asserting that I am not a consumer, which is total nonsense. And just to be clear, this is not a complaint about the .me.uk part, which requires the registrant to be an individual. It is for the whois opt-out. Very odd indeed.

What gets me here is that they just published my address without asking. It is not that secret (Companies House have it), but that is not the point. There is no consultation, no warning, no checking anything, they just make a decision and change the whois - done - published. If there was some reason they thought the whois was wrong somehow, they could have asked - should have asked. They didn't.

Basically, whatever the reason was for this, it is clear that nobody can actually trust Nominet to respect the opt-out, and so A&A will have to recommend customers use a correspondence address even for opted-out personal domains.

This is the email:-
Hi Adrian Kennard,

It has been brought to my attention that your find.me.uk domain name is registered to Adrian Kennard and is also opted out of our WHOIS facility.  To qualify for the opt-out you must be a 'consumer' i.e. an individual who has registered and is using the domain name for a purpose unconnected with any business, trade (this includes the registration of domain names for monetisation purposes, e.g. pay per click advertising etc) or profession.

As Adrian Kennard is not a consumer, I have removed the opt-out from the domain and the associated address details will now be visible on the WHOIS search facility.  Please note that any email or telephone details will not be made public.

You will now be unable to set the opt-out through our Online Services.

You can find more information about our WHOIS policy and carry out a WHOIS search by visiting http://www.nominet.org.uk/go/whoisfaq

Argos: Can't tell difference between an invoice and a credit note!

We got some things from Argos. It was actually a pile of mobile phones for testing voice SIMs. It came to more than £100.

Having got the phones I asked for a VAT receipt. The order ticket does not have the details of VAT rate, or amount, etc, so is not good enough to reclaim VAT.

Now, in most shops, this is simple, they can either print off one, or hand write one. It takes a couple of minutes, and you have the VAT receipt. Without it you cannot reclaim the VAT, so losing 16.66% of what you paid. Obviously one could hope not to be picked up on a VAT inspection, but we do things right, and it is generally no hassle to do things right.

He went away for about quarter of an hour, and finally came back with a hand filled out Credit Note!

For those that do not know, a credit note is the opposite of an invoice/receipt. It says the goods have been un-sold and the money (and VAT) are to be paid back. If we, as a business, have a credit note, we have to pay the VAT part of that to HMRC.

So, now, technically, instead of just being unable to claim £40 of VAT, I should actually pay HMRC an extra £40 of VAT.

I pointed out his mistake, and he went away. He came back and was absolutely adamant that this is all he can give me, and his store support people he called confirmed it is valid and legal and not a mistake. He said he is not allowed to issue a manual invoice. He also could not issue an invoice from his tills.

I argued, and showed him the The Value Added Tax Regulations 1995 on my phone, but still no luck.

I am at a loss now - I have advised HMRC that Argos don't know the difference between a Credit Note and an Invoice. I have also asked how they want me to handle the VAT. This could result in Argos getting a VAT inspection, with any luck.

In the mean time I have sent a copy of the Credit Note to Argos and asked for them to pay it. After all, it is a legal document stating that they now owe us money, and for which there is no record of any payment having been made. They chose to issue it. They were adamant it was not a mistake. So a nice gift from them. We'll see what happens.

Update: those regulations have been amended, but the legislation.gov.uk site does not keep them updated, which is a nuisance. The do have a way to list changes though. The amount for a simplified retail receipt was changed to £250 in 2003, and a general option for a simplified receipt up to £250 was added in 2012. However, the order slip they provided did not meet even those requirements (not showing VAT rate), so I was still right to ask for a VAT receipt (even a simplified one), and giving me a credit note was completely wrong.

Update: Argos say on their web site that to get a VAT receipt you should email them. I did, the reply is that they cannot send one, and I should ask in the store. oh what fun!

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Uber: Late nights in London

I live in Bracknell, which is about 40 miles drive from London. Unfortunately there are a lot of events in London which means I end up in London in the evening. Until recently this has been inconvenient and/or rather costly so I have not been going to a lot of events. This has rather shown me the importance of these events for business, so I decided I should start going to more of them. This leaves me with a dilemma of how to get home...

Option 1: Last train

The obvious answer is to catch the last train. There is a direct train Waterloo to Bracknell, and the last train is around 23:30. It is slow (takes an hour), and for some reason SWT tend to lock the toilets, which is a pain if you have been drinking all evening. Of course this means watching the clock and leaving early. It is usually packed, and I decided long ago the only way to be vaguely comfortable, and have a table and power socket, is to go 1st class on that train, which is £21. Typically you need a taxi or tube or bus to Waterloo at around £5, and then a taxi home at the end for another £5. Of course there is a danger that you doze off, miss the station, and end up in Reading at 1am. It is, by far, the cheapest option though.

Total Cost: £31
Downside: Clock watching, leaving early, don't fall asleep.

Option 2: Hotel over night

Another option, which is usually sensible for two day events and I have done in the past for events I know will end late, is a hotel for the night. The issue is that a London hotel is at least £120, and more likely £180. You still need to get to the hotel (£5), and then from hotel to station in morning (£5), a train (£21) and taxi to work from station (£5). I normally get to work soon after 7am, but would be in much later if staying over night in London.

Total Cost: £156+
Downside: Taking overnight bag, not sleeping in own bed, late for work, expensive.

Option 3: Black cab home

What I ended up doing, before I stopped going to many events, was getting a black cab home. This is simple enough in London, though I have had problems on some occasions if not near a major road. I have had cabs around £150, but they got more and more expensive and now around £170. It does mean you end up at home in your own bed, and can sleep in the taxi, which is good. This was getting way too expensive. On top of which you usually are expected to give a tip, and getting a VAT receipt is a nuisance when you just want to get to bed.

Total Cost: £170
Downside: None really apart from the cost.

Option 4: Uber car

Last month I had a rather good dinner at the National Liberal Club with Jullian Huppert and a few friends. At the end of the night I was about to get a cab home, having resigned myself to the fact that this was a very expensive evening already (supporting Julian's re-election campaign), when John Benson said try Uber. He clicked the invite button, I followed the link, downloaded the app, put in card details and asked it for a quote to get home. It said £65! So I said yes, and it said 4 minutes and showed me where the car was on its way to me, registration number, name and picture of driver. The driver knew exactly where I was by GPS from my phone, my name and my mobile number. I got in, fell asleep, arrived home, job done. Quite specifically on their web site its says no need to tip him, all charged to the card. As I walked through my door my phone dinged with the emailed receipt from Uber. I have used it again, and again £65 and only 3 minutes wait. It just works!

Total Cost: £65
Downside: Still more than a train, but if there are two of us it is a no brainer.

Overall I have to say I am impressed, and it starts to make these events much more available. It is even cheaper than getting a hotel for a two day event if I get a car home and train back next morning! I far prefer sleeping in my own bed and not having hassle of taking an over night bag to an event. I can go with just myself and my mobile phone, which makes a change.

They also do a referral scheme where both of us get £10 credit. Just go to
uber.com/invite/wp7ru or use code wp7ru.

I'll be in London tonight, with two colleagues, making this cheaper than getting a train home as we can share one car.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Zebra ZXP8 Contact Station

[update: See later blog post for more on this fiasco]

I am very disappointed with Zebra. We ordered one of their ZXP8 card printers. It is, overall, a good printer, and one of the few that can cope with printing on SIM cards.

Most printers try to print directly on the card. This works with a smooth blank plastic card, but not well on the rougher surface of a SIM card. The ZXP8 prints, instead, on a transfer ribbon, and then does a pressure/heat transfer on to the card. This allows it to print right to the edge of the card and cope with the cut outs and contacts found on a SIM. It is not perfect, but very good for the job.

Like most commercial card printers it has encoding options which are add-ons at extra cost that allow you to encode the card in some way. The main options you would expect are magnetic encoding (the mag stripe on the back), contact encoding (like chip and PIN cards, or SIM cards), and contactless encoding (like Oyster cards).

The ZXP8 offers three encoding options which (a) magnetic (b) contact station, and (c) contact and contactless (mifare) encoding.

As we only needed contact cards for SIMs I ordered the "contact station". FYI, they also list the interfaces on the unit as Ethernet and USB only.

When we got the printer we could not figure out how to use the contact station. The applications said contact station installed but in other places said "encoder: none", so it was confusing. It also had no serial number in the config, or serial number for the print head, and various other obvious omissions, so we assumed it was an error.

It has taken 5 months of various emails back and forth, and us installing some windows software and running tests and all sorts to finally get the answer that the "contact station" does not actually talk to the card at all.

No, the contact station is simply the contacts to connect the card, that are run to a 9 way D-type on the back. No electronics at all. A 9 way D-type is not one of the listed "interfaces" in the spec. But they knew this from the serial/model number and could have told us on the very first email we sent. 5 months to tell us is crazy.

Now they want nearly £500 for the upgrade kit, and the reseller was prepared to send that to us. We have the service manual we found on-line and it is simple enough. But guess what, they won't sell us the upgrade kit. We have to pay another £500 and send it back to them (for weeks?) to have it fitted.

The answer? Well, a 9 way D-type we found in the build room; one of the cherry keyboards with card reader from the skip (had coffee tipped over the keyboard but card reader worked still); a soldering iron; a raspberry PI. And now we have a card reader attached to the printer. Probably under £100 of parts even if bought new. But it works, and we can buy the parts again if we need. Just so annoying. MacGyver would have been proud.

In short I feel let down by Zebra
  1. The advertising is misleading - if you only want contact cards you would naturally assume the "contact station" is the option you want
  2. They took 5 months to tell me, and even internally their staff did not know that the contact station was so pointless. Nobody said [waves hand] "These aren't the encoding options you are looking for".
  3. They won't sell the upgrade kit.
Not the way to do business really.

P.S. Yes, as this bodge is likely to be permanent now, I will 3D print a case.

Update: Zebra have said, on this occasion, they will send someone to install the upgrade for free, if we buy the upgrade itself, having agreed it was very misleading. So some progress.

&

In XML and HTML you have some simple escaping rules that you have to follow. In XML the rules are even simpler, you just have to escape &, < and > which are presented as &amp; &lt; and &gt;

But some many people get this wrong, and we routinely get parcels addressed to Andrews &amp; Arnold Ltd, or as per the picture ANDREWS amp ARNOLD LTD. I think we have even seen Andrews &amp;amp; Arnold Ltd once.

It is not rocket science.

It had caused no end of issues for us having an & in the company name. BT took ages to get the XML ordering right as they injected the company name in XML they sent on to their Openreach division so orders went in but did not progress normally and nobody in BT knew why.

We even have fun trying to send OTA messages to mobile SIMs to set the operator name to A&A. It keeps coming up as A&amp;A on the phones.

Anyway, I now have UK company 08921585 which is &AMP;AMP; LTD.

But even UKPLC who do company formations insisted on emailing me about company &AMP; LTD, even in plain text emails!

I may have to set it up as a consultancy on XML.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Do you want to round up your bill and donate to some charity?

I was quite surprised that, paying at the supermarket yesterday, I was asked if I wanted to round up my bill and donate to some charity?

I have just handed the cashier £80 for a £62 something bill, and had no idea if she meant round up to £63, £65, £70, £80 or what and was, to be honest, fooled by the question.

I said "no", but obviously that makes me look like a meany infront people I was with. I am sure that is the whole idea to guilt people in to handing over money.

There are, of course, many good causes who may deserve charity, but anyone trying to guilt me in to handing over money just puts me off. After all, it is not like I don't give a shit load to the government to make everyone's life easier one way or another.

What I was kicking myself for was that the obvious retort only came to me a minute later as I was walking away. This is always the way, isn't it?

I should have asked if they would like to round down my bill and I'll send what I save to a charity. That would put them on the spot and having to say "no" and I could say how "uncharitable" they were.

I'll decide when, who and how much I give to charity and not because I am bullied in to it at a supermarket till, thank you.

BT refusing to fix a fault?

BT have a rather strange system where, if there is an order on a line, they will not fix a fault on the line.

This has always struck me as an odd state of affairs but BT have refused to rectify this. Obviously some types of order mean a line stopping working briefly (e.g. rejumpering). But there are many types of orders that do not mean that, and even re-jumpering type orders have a date on which they are done but BT will refuse any fault report any time before, even if the order does not start for many months.

This came up before where we had bulk migrations from 20CN to 21CN, which are an order on the system, but were set up a week or two in advance of the actual work. This problem for us is that the bulk migrate is free, but canceling one of the migrates and re-doing later cost money. BT were insisting that in order to fix a fault while such an order was pending we had to cancel the order, hence incurring costs (to BT) later to reinstate it.

That nearly came to county court claims then, but it was eventually resolved by a combination of fewer 20CN bulk migrates left to do, and BT internally not putting in the migrate order until the last minute making the window for refusing fault repair much smaller.

Still, it was not a proper fix. The issue rarely comes up these days as the only orders we tend to place are to be done ASAP, or install orders where there cannot be a fault (for us) while waiting.

Now we have one unfortunate customer that has had a fault (total loss of service) for nearly two weeks now. He has an open order to move to another ISP which will not happen for 4 more weeks, but his line has a fault now.

It has taken two weeks of solid arguing, and then threats of county court action, to get BT to do anything. They even sent engineers who could see the fault but said they could not fix the fault as an order was open.

We were told that we have to get the other ISP to cancel the order so BT will fix the fault. This is crazy talk, and of course we are not going to try and ask another ISP to cancel their order. Why would we? Why would they listen to is? And asking our customer to cancel his order with another ISP is crazy too.

BT need to fix this fundamental problem - it is quite possible for a fault to exist and need fixing on a service which has an order pending for some time in the future.

I suspect this specific fault will get resolved (it may have been today already), so once again we will not get BT to fix the underlying problem. One of these days it will get to a county court claim and maybe then BT will realise that they have a broken system that needs properly fixing.