Thursday, 18 February 2016

Another stupid OFCOM code of practice

The latest OFCOM code of practice on line speeds sounds sensible. ISPs agreeing to it will give a clear minimum speed when ordering, will try and address speed issues, and will allow a customer out of the contract if they cannot.

It sounds good. I agree wholeheartedly in principle with such a plan.

But there is a problem!

Most ISPs are not the underlying line provider or carrier themselves - they buy either a broadband service from a carrier like BT or TalkTalk, or they buy copper pairs from BT and have their own kit in the exchange. Yes, there are exceptions like Virgin, but by far the majority of ISPs are buying a wholesale back-haul and DSL tail service of some sort.

This creates a problem - as an ISP, we could sign up to the code of practice, but issues impacting the actual line speed are outside of our direct control - we simply have to rely on the efforts of the wholesale carrier to rectify such issues. Indeed, even a minimum speed forecast depends on the carrier providing us with the data.

So, obviously, you would expect that OFCOM have either imposed the same conditions on the carriers like BT or TalkTalk or at least got agreement from them to support this new code of practice at a wholesale level.

After all, if they have not, then it is meaningless for ISPs like us, and hundreds of others, to sign up the code. We could not state a guaranteed minimum if the carrier does not tell us one. We cannot make effort to fix a speed issue unless the carrier will consider such an issue a fault and accept a fault report from us and themselves make such effort. Obviously the last point of allowing someone out of contract we could do, but only at our cost if the carrier holds us to term or charges us cease fees. Without the first two points we are left simply signing up to a means by which we lose money and do not actually help customers. That is dumb.

What is especially strange is that BT plc used to offer FTTC on the basis that if the line does not meet the minimum speed estimate then they will (a) make effort to fix it, and (b) we can reject the install and get a full refund, not be held to term, and even have a line put back to ADSL if that is what is was.

I.e. BT used to provide exactly what we would need for this code of practice for FTTC. But BT have changed their terms, detrimentally, so that they no longer do this. They actually have some hidden lower percentile minimum against which we can reject an install but we are not told that speed, and they will no longer make any effort to fix a line that is below the minimum they state on their checker. They have moved away from this sensible customer service based system. They don't have this for ADSL.

So what the hell are OFCOM playing at? Why did they launch a code of practice where ISPs would have to take on liability with no hope of any means to mitigate that liability or actually help customers improve their lines? In whose interest are they acting exactly?

What is worse is that a customer can impact speed themselves in various ways - impeding the line speed. With no means to get the carrier to take such issues seriously we would have to accept the low speed and let customers out of term, paying the carrier ourselves, i.e. opening ourselves to a get-out-of-contract-free scheme.

I'd like to thank TalkTalk for at least replying on this issue, and checking with OFCOM, who confirmed they are not imposing or agreeing any requirements on wholesale operations.

Sadly this means, once again, we cannot sign up to their code of practice. Last time it was stupid wording, this time it is sensible wording but no backing for such a scheme.

Thankfully we have our own code of practice on speed and quality, and take issues where a fault is causing low speed very seriously, using our advance diagnostics and monitoring tools.

But seriously OFCOM - don't you ever think when you make this stuff?

P.S. To be clear, we would be happy to sign up to this code of practice if and when the carriers we use do so as well, and hence provide us with the means to actually provide the assurances and guarantees offered.


  1. Of course you _could_ offer those guarantees, even if your service provider isn't offering them to you; you'd simply be accepting liability if they're not met. The entire internet is based on building reliable services on top of less-reliable services.

    1. I could only do the "get out of contract" bit. I can't force BT to treat a low speed as a fault and try and fix it, and if I don't have a guaranteed min speed to quote I can't quote one. So no - I can't!

    2. But any meaningful guarantee has to come with consequences for breaking it. If you chose - not that I'm saying you necessarily should - you could simply accept those consequences in a small proportion of cases as a cost of doing business.

    3. And so could BT wholesale and talk talk businesses. Only difference is that they have control over the criteria for such consequences and we don't.

    4. Of course - and that would certainly be the better route. I'm just pointing out that it's not impossible to offer a better guarantee than the underlying service has, should you choose to do so.

  2. I do empathise with what you are saying, and even agree that for this to work, wholesale services would ideally need to change as well. I even agree that this is a bit unnecessary for A&A, as personally I have absolute faith that you will provide me with the best service you are able to provide me.

    That said, I'm a consumer, and not all ISPs are good. Many are outright bad, don't pay attention, don't try to help, etc.

    You *are* able to assist - even if your wholesale provider won't help, you *could* enlist local IT specialists to help customers with internal wiring, pay BT for "boost engineers" etc. You could let people out of contract to go to another, potentially more helpful ISP. Now, the issues here are that none of this is likely in the least bit financially viable for you, and that with you, there probably isn't a more helpful ISP for a customer to leave in favour of.

    But the balance of power here is that you are, compared to a single lone consumer with one line, a big organisation. If you lose one customer, one line, it may mean you make a loss on that line due to wholesale minimum terms and cease charges, but overall even for a small ISP one line is a fraction of a percent of your customer base.

    For the customer, you are 100% of his ISP, and while moving from A&A to someone else probably wouldn't help him, I can see a scenario where moving from A.N.Other ISP to A&A would help him, so do see why this is a positive step.

    1. We sell a service which, like BT and TT, has a demarcation point of the master socket - extension wiring or the set up of PC are not part of the service itself and not subject to any sort of speed guarantee anyway even with this code of practice. The fact you suggest that highlights some of the confusion. Obviously if we sell equipment that is faulty we replace that but that comes under normal sale of goods, and not a broadband speed guarantee. As you say, we do take these things seriously but we can only really address faults and we are fortunate to have the tools to see faults. Simply being slower than guaranteed is not something we could fix, or could any other ISP using TT or BT unless the carriers accept that as a fault.

    2. You're right of course, but not all providers are as helpful, speed issues could come from things like contention and congestion (and with Virgin Media, commonly do!).

      While A&A likely have a relatively high level of average technical knowledge amongst both staff and customers, you only have to take a look at online forums such as thinkbroadband to find many cases where customers are running tests via wifi, from a router that is connected to one of 5 extension sockets (all star wired) etc. Now, this isn't the ISPs fault, but you'd expect the ISP to at least go through this with the customer, and help them to resolve it. Some ISPs are pretty unhelpful even in the case of faults.

      I'm about to move house to somewhere in VM coverage area. I intend to order VM, because of the 200mbit service, but if, like many people, I suffer such congestion that I only get 3mbit in the evening, I would expect to be allowed out of contract.

      When I moved in to my current property, I was predicted via the BT Wholesale checker, ~60mbit down and ~18mbit up. The reality is that due to Aluminium, I only get ~43mbit down and ~6mbit up. While I don't want to cancel (instead I got 2 lines), if VM were available here I may well want to cancel and try them instead. I also feel I should have a right to downgrade to 40/10 in this circumstance, which I was offered by Plusnet, but see nothing wrong with this being more than a reliance on my ISP's goodwill.

      You also have issues such as every ISP giving different estimates. Of course, anyone selling an 80/20 FTTC product will give the same speed to me (barring modem chipset differences), but many people don't know or understand this, so the ISP that advertises the higher speed gets the most customers. Rules like this, while they don't eliminate the problem (an impartial site that gives the estimates would do that), at least disincentivise ISPs to overpromise and only give out the top end estimate.

      It's actually in many ways in an ISPs interest to give the minimum throughput they can get away with. If an ISP could get away with halving the sync rate for their entire customer base (barring the ones that complained) they could save a fortune on bandwidth. At least this rule gives some power back to the consumer stuck in an 18 month contract in such a regard.

      Regulation can be a good thing. BT Wholesale have significantly more market power than A&A - this is why you haven't been able to negotiate a contract with them that prevents them charging you for SFI visits etc and have to fight them every time - and this is why the relationship between you and BT needs regulation - to stop abuse by the larger party.

      In the same way, the relationship between an ISP and the customer needs regulation. If all ISPs were like A&A, we perhaps wouldn't need this, but it's not a perfect world.

    3. Obviously we try to help with wiring issues - but not as part of a broadband speed guarantee. We would have the customer test via ethernet on the master socket to confirm if the wiring or wifi ar the issue. As BTW define SFI there is no sane reason for any ISP to buy the SFI "service" from BTW, and no requirement to, as BTW have to fix faults in what they sell (broadband, not SIN349 copper). Hence the large amount of disputes we keep having to get them to agree.

    4. It is probably worth being clear - we always want to help our customers, and go way beyond our contractual obligations in doing so. What we resent is obligations being imposed (thankfully this is a voluntary CoP) or compensation due if we fail to do things which are beyond our obligations and especially if beyond our control.

    5. I'm not actually convinced that halving the sync rate across the whole customer base would save the ISP as much bandwidth as you expect. There are a few users that leave bittorrent running 24/7, and these would certainly see a reduction in total bandwidth; but the majority of customers don't do that - most people use their internet connection for a bit of web surfing, etc. For these people, higher throughput just means that pages load a bit faster, but if you cut their throughput they would still download exactly the same amount of data in total, they would just have to wait longer for pages to load. (The exception to this rule would be if you throttled Netflix down enough for it to drop down to a lower data rate stream, I guess)

  3. It just makes you wonder what kind of people they are taking on at Ofcom. Chinless, gormless, zero clue. They just don't seem to be even close to being up to it. How can they not _just know_ these things. In fact not only do they have no clue, but they also presumably have no friends, as you would think they would ask someone else who does have a clue rather than floundering. How can you get a job at Ofcom without knowing how an ISP works?

    1. Bizarrely, it seems they've fallen for their own spin about there being "competition" in the UK marketplace - completely ignoring that for virtually all of us outside Virgin's service footprint, all the "competing" services are just reselling one BT Openreach product or another, with the terms and capabilities BT decide to offer.

      So, they talk about "ISPs" offering service to remote areas - when they just mean Openreach supplying services to those areas for their resellers to offer. They talk about "ISP" speeds, when really it's a question of the speed of access link BT provides those ISPs with.

      Perhaps, from their non-technical point of view, that makes sense: on a superficial level it does look as if you have a "choice" of phone/broadband company now, with dozens of different companies advertising services with little or no mention of most of the service just being a BT one, repackaged, with a genuine choice of long-distance data/call services on top.

    2. I tend to agree, apart from "reselling". We use a BT broadband and back haul service to provide an Internet access service. It is not simply reselling, but for the key points here (speed of broadband part) yes, it is what BT offer that matters pretty much.