Corporate BT

by Liam McNaughton

BT. Thank goodness they abbreviated it a long time ago, so we can barely remember that its pedigree is British Telecom, to avoid any accompanying national shame. This organisation, if that isn’t itself an oxymoron, has to be the most incompetent business since White Star Lines said the ship was unsinkable. Those that worry about a Big Brother state, and I count myself amongst them, would do worse than lobby the government to privatise GCHQ and sell it off to BT. Then the chance of this firm actually being competent enough to create an all knowing state machine will be next to nil. We could once again mention fertiliser in a sentence without fear, safe in the knowledge that our freedoms were secure, by cock-up if not conspiracy.

BT are the original impenetrable, impersonal mega-corp. Like most large corporations, they don’t actually want to speak to you, and make every effort to hide their contact details away on their website behind the usual hurdles of fake cartoon help people, online forms, support knowledge bases, and small print. And when you do finally get through you end up somewhere different every time, disappearing down blind alleys, being offered menu choices that aren’t relevant to you, and dealing with people who want to get rid of you as fast as possible or transfer you somewhere else.

BT Openreach

So far so familiar, and most of us have now learnt that we are better off using a third party provider, who we hope has some humanity, and having as little to do with BT as is possible. Except, and here’s the sting in the tail, BT Openreach, the bastard child of BT, manage the vast majority of the UK’s connectivity infrastructure – the Exchanges and the copper lines, most of which our parents and even our parent’s parents paid for decades ago, and BT are still managing and renting out for profits. And this parent is like those in Philip Larkin’s poem; “They fill you with the faults they had, And add some extra, just for you.”

The thing is, Openreach have learnt all of BT’s tricks and some more of their own: They won’t even talk to you full stop, unless you happen to be in the same room or they want to call you. I guess that someone thought it would be a splendid idea to break up BT into BT and BT Openreach as the wholesale division, to improve service and competition – it achieved neither. They should have stopped at the first part of the idea, and just broken up BT. Openreach are the engineers who come out to fit your phone line, or diagnose a broadband fault after you have already navigated the “scars on your back” pain of raising the fault in the first place, after you have agreed to accept any charges if it turns out it is not their problem, after changing routers and filters and rebooting a dozen times.

Correct Approach

In some 10 years now of IT support, I have never been hit with this threatened bill from BT for a visit where it turns out to be an equipment fault. This is because, in every case, I or my team of engineers has already determined that it is NOT an equipment fault. Despite doing their job for them, we can’t send them a bill for the waste of our time attending sites to rule out equipment failure before deciding to involve them.

In case you think my vitriol is exaggerated and unwarranted, here are a few recent examples of the sort of BT Openreach incompetence to make less battle hardened individuals cry for their mums:

  1. A recent Openreach order for a new line resulted in 6 – yes 6 – site visits until the line was actually installed. This was because, at visit number 1, the engineer discovered that they would have to access over a flat roof at the premises, which requires a specialist “flat roof” team (yes, really). As the technical contact, he called us, and informed us of this. He would arrange this internally; we couldn’t speak to the flat roof team, obviously. A week or 2 later, we get another call from a BT Openreach engineer from the site; he has arrived to fit a line, and, oh dear, there’s a flat roof so he needs to get the “flat roof team” involved. We protest of course, that we thought he would be that flat roof team – he assures us that it will be escalated internally. A week or 2 later there is another visit from BT Openreach and another call – an engineer is on-site, he can’t fit the line because, yes, there’s a flat roof. Rinse and repeat 6 times, and 3 months later, and we finally get a line fitted. And this is only after we have escalated the problem via our provider (Gradwell) who themselves have no choice of course but to use BT Openreach.

  2. A recent callout from BT Openreach to a line fault, at a practice in Cambridge. We had already confirmed the fault, and there was no dial tone on the line. A BT Openreach engineer arrived, was rude and grumpy to staff, advised he would need to investigate the box outside, disappeared and never came back. It required a further revisit before the line was fixed.

  3. A recent order for an installation of a new line at a dental practice in Kimberworth. The engineer arrived, seemed confused about what he needed to do (staff told him where the line was required), he messed around with the current lines for a while which he said he didn’t want to “disturb”, then he disappeared.

  4. An order for a new line in Sheffield, resulted in a call from a flustered BT engineer en route to the job. He was concerned because the address on his paperwork, “High Green”, was different to the address in his Satnav, which was: “Highgreen” without the space. OMG. Everything else was right of course, the postcode, the practice name etc, and I assured him that this wasn’t a problem; but I could already hear the “job’s worth” excuse kicking in – and sure enough the installation failed.

I could go on, and on; indeed approximately half of BT Openreach installations and fault callouts result in some kind of problem or failure. And because you can’t deal with them directly, you have to go through your supplier, who often has as little communication with them as you do.


In terms of the network itself, BT boast of their fibre network expansion and coverage (see I) but in reality this is patchy and unpredictable; with some exchanges in city centre and busy town centres unable to receive FTTC (fibre to the cabinet). In rural or less populated areas, BT have many exchanges that are not even in the plans to upgrade. They say this is because they would not be economically viable, and specifically mention in their FAQs that this would require public or government subsidy to resolve (see II). I fail to understand why a company that has the monopoly ownership of the vast bulk of the UK communications infrastructure, and profits substantially as a result of this monopoly, is not simply REQUIRED to plan to expand to rural exchanges at their cost, not that of the taxpayer. Royal Mail was recently privatised, and under Ofcom regulations will be required to continue to provide a universal delivery service, including rural as well as urban areas. Why is the BT Openreach network considered any different?

According to public records, BT’s “operating margin” for 2013 is at 17 per cent (see III), that’s higher than the previous 5 years, and much higher than the energy companies’ profit margins that are causing a national scandal at the moment. Why we continue to allow this organisation to monopolise such a vital national asset as our communications infrastructure, to maintain it so badly, and provide such poor service and communication whilst doing so, is utterly beyond me.

I - Openreach


III - Security details

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