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Ed Vaizey talks BT and Openreach customer service levels
Thursday 10 March 2016 10:33:52 by Andrew Ferguson

Ministers always sit in an odd place since they have their responsibility for running affairs in their sector as well as dealing with the day to day activity of being an MP and so a debate in Westminster Hall on Wednesday saw a change from Ed Vaizey MP as he talked frankly on current service problems in the broadband arena and some ideas for increasing clarity for the consumer.

"The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy (Mr Edward Vaizey): Of course, that contrasted with the traditional speech given by Labour’s shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), who is clearly launching Labour’s long march to power by promising 2 megabits to the country. Labour remains entirely silent on which policies will deliver the superfast speeds that people now want.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab):: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Vaizey: No. The hon. Lady has just had 10 minutes to set out her position and there was absolutely nothing in it. What is Labour’s position on the digital communications review? How would Labour get superfast broadband to the entire country?

Chi Onwurah: Fibre!

Mr Vaizey: How are they going to pay for the fibre that she is shouting about from a sedentary position? Of course, there is nothing. There has been only one failure in the superfast broadband roll-out programme that I have supervised and that was in south Yorkshire, where we inherited a useless Labour contract and had to write off £50 million of taxpayers’ money. Everything else has been an unadulterated success. We now have 93% of the country able to receive fibre, 90% of the country able to get superfast speeds of 24 megabits and above, and 50% of the country able to get ultrafast broadband speeds of 100 megabits and above.

I should say, though, that I have no truck with Openreach and its customer service levels. This morning I read an article in The Times by Danny Finkelstein, who is a remain campaigner. He is so depressed about the woeful leave campaign that he set out some measures that he thought the leave campaign should concentrate on. So, I shall give a speech on behalf of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition.

Let me begin, as a member of the Opposition, by regretting the low levels of satisfaction with BT Openreach under the last Labour Government. There were low levels of satisfaction for pretty much everything under the last Labour Government, but they were woefully low for BT Openreach. They have improved under this Government, but they remain very much behind other providers. TalkTalk runs Openreach close in levels of customer satisfaction, but Virgin and Sky are way ahead. Perhaps BT should spend less money on sports rights and hire Sky’s customer services director instead."

Extract from Westminster Hall debate 9th March 2016 (full transcript)

There is much more so we suggest reading the full transcript rather than just the snippets we and others are using. The issues with customer service are nothing new, but the last few years has made it much more obvious and broadband is so much more critical to many people that the stretched resources of Openreach probably need significant expansion and a previous attempt to improve things by using contract labour caused more problems that it solved based on feedback on our own forums.

One issue is both good and bad at the same time is that take-up of VDSL2 services has reached a point where many cabinets need upgrades and mysterious waiting lists exist. These lists allow providers to take an order and as soon as more capacity is in place it is processed, but unfortunately none of the big retail providers appear to bother with it. Unfortunately more staff means more salaries and will the nation and Ofcom allow a price rise in wholesale line rental to provide better service?

The subject of line rental cropped up and we've for many years made sure that line rental has sufficient prominence and in the last few months have started using combined pricing for the major providers in our listings to ensure people are not mislead by the free broadband headline, a very big difference where line rental is a check box or small text in a poorly constrasting colour on some other sites.

Broadband speeds in advertising are going to be a bug bear even if the UK was 100% fixed connection speed, e.g. cable DOCSIS or FTTH because there is still the shared nature of the Internet at large, but Ed Vaizey in his own opinion says that speeds in advertising should be what 75% of people are getting, or inline with our lower quartile speeds. Getting a measure like that through the ASA/BCAP/Ofcom sector would see lots of opposition and unless there is a massive public education campaign could see millions staying with their existing up to 17 Mbps ADSL2+ service (that really runs at 3 Mbps), rather than upgrading to something that would be a lot faster (VDSL2 advertising at 19 Mbps).

Of course the problems with UK broadband infrastructure do not just lie at the feet of the BT Group, the myriad other operators often have similar problems with customer service, and delayed or slow roll-outs and even in countries like New Zealand that have a model many wanted Ofcom to force upon Openreach people see delays with installs etc. The difference is that the alternates have none of the history that rightly or wrongly sees BT and Openreach as the national telco and is still the defacto go to firm for anything telecoms related.

So the question is how to transition the UK to a full FTTH/P economy in as short a time frame as possible in an affordable manner, while also improving service standards. The Ofcom solution is greater inspection of Openreach and new performance targets and more stringent rules around PIA (Pole and Duct access) to encourage alternate networks to deploy. Given that in the two weeks since decade long vision arrived from Ofcom that no-one has slapped a wad of cash on the table saying we will roll-out, we suspect that by 2025 Gigabit download connectivity (DOCSIS 3.1 and FTTH) will reach 75% to 80% of UK households - with 300 Mbps to 600 Mbps download speeds might reach 80 to 85%.

Update 11am To help people understand the speed range and what sort of speeds we would see in advertising we have some example figures from our February 2016 speed test analysis.

Large Provider Fibre Based Connection Download Speed Tests February 2016
Provider 10th Percentile Lower Quartile
(this is the figure Ed Vaizey suggests is used)
Median Download Upper Quartile 90th Percentile
FTTC Overall (excludes Virgin Media) 12.1 Mbps 19.5 Mbps 28.4 Mbps 36.9 Mbps 47.9 Mbps
BT 13.1 Mbps 21.1 Mbps 31 Mbps 37.7 Mbps 54.5 Mbps
EE 11.6 Mbps 19.4 Mbps 29 Mbps 35.9 Mbps 37.6 Mbps
Plusnet 11.6 Mbps 19.9 Mbps 31.4 Mbps 38.4 Mbps 58.5 Mbps
Sky 10.7 Mbps 16.8 Mbps 24.8 Mbps 31.9 Mbps 37 Mbps
TalkTalk 13.5 Mbps 20.4 Mbps 27.5 Mbps 36.2 Mbps 39.9 Mbps
Virgin Media 8 Mbps 21.4 Mbps 40.4 Mbps 60.4 Mbps 97.1 Mbps
Vodafone 15.4 Mbps 22.1 Mbps 32.8 Mbps 44.9 Mbps 63.4 Mbps

The top 10% figures will not line up precisely with current ASA figures, because these range figures are combinations of the up to 76 Mbps and up to 38 Mbps products. This means that since connection speed is for the FTTC services under Openreach control that the variation in figures is usually down to the relative take-up of the up to 76 Mbps service in each provider. The product split is a big issue with Virgin Media, and it is also not helped by the fact that from looking at the test results we still see people who appear to be on legacy up to 20 Mbps products for some reason.

ADSL/ADSL2+ Connection Speed Tests February 2016
Provider 10th Percentile Lower Quartile
(this is the figure Ed Vaizey suggests is used)
Median Download Upper Quartile 90th Percentile
All Providers 1.1 Mbps 2.5 Mbps 5.2 Mbps 9.6 Mbps 14.6 Mbps
BT 0.9 Mbps 2 Mbps 4.7 Mbps 8.7 Mbps 14.7 Mbps
EE 1 Mbps 2.1 Mbps 4.6 Mbps 8.6 Mbps 13.7 Mbps
Plusnet 0.9 Mbps 2.3 Mbps 4.9 Mbps 9.6 Mbps 14.5 Mbps
Sky 1.1 Mbps 2.4 Mbps 5.3 Mbps 9.9 Mbps 14.7 Mbps
TalkTalk 1.3 Mbps 2.8 Mbps 5.5 Mbps 9.3 Mbps 14.3 Mbps
Rural ADSL 0.7 Mbps 1.7 Mbps 3.7 Mbps 6.6 Mbps 8.5 Mbps

The ADSL/ADSL2+ tables are more reliant on the providers own network and DSLAM configuration, but the key point to take note of is that rural areas where ASDL2+ is less likely to be available very clearly reflect this in the speed test results and would raise an interesting topic for honest advertising practices, i.e. in a print press advert for a Scottish paper should the up to speed be the UK wide one or Scotland.


Posted by WWWombat 8 months ago
Is the prediction in the final paragraph a guess at the availability of native FTTH, at a minimal installation cost?

Or is it a guess that some variant of FoD2, at a higher installation cost, will be available to 75-80%?
Posted by andrew (Favicon staff member) 8 months ago
native FTTH, no point in guessing FoD coverage.

Note though we expect DOCSIS 3.1 to be the dominant product, i.e. 60 to 65% coverage and some overlap, but 20 to 25% FTTH is feasible. Would love to say more but know the difference pragmatism and a dream.
Posted by gah789 8 months ago
Sorry to be pernickety but shouldn't "Lower/Upper Percentile" in the tables be Lower/Upper Decile - i.e. the bottom/top 10%. The unqualified term percentile is meaningless in this context.

More generally, don't advertise speeds unless you are willing to let people get out of contracts if you don't deliver them. That would be consistent with consumer law and commercial contracts.
Posted by andrew (Favicon staff member) 8 months ago
10th Percentile and 90th Percentile I believe will make people happy - thanks for pointing out though.

On the contracts - though signed up to the Ofcom codes already do that
Posted by WWWombat 8 months ago
My problem with predicting native FTTP coverage is this: If Openreach were to do this, wouldn't they be removing subscribers who are currently paying back the investment in FTTC cabinet.

With native FTTP costing the same as FTTC packages, jumping ship is a no-brainer. Potentially leaving FTTC cabinets that aren't getting the return originally envisaged for 12-15 year paybacks.
Posted by andrew (Favicon staff member) 8 months ago
@WWWombat all depends on where its done and why I did not say 20 to 25% FTTH but was a provider neutral statement.
Posted by WWWombat 8 months ago
Ah ... Missed the neutrality. Guess I mixed it up with the other story on Openreach looking to put out more FTTP and G.Fast.
Posted by pfvincent 8 months ago
Once again virtually the whole debate focused on download speeds! Upload speeds were only mentioned once in the entire debate (by Calum Kerr).
With the increase in cloud storage, upload speed is also important for many domestic customers, as well as most businesses.
The nominal 50Mbps download that I get from Virgin Media gives me no problems, but by the end of this month I am to get a free upgrade to 70Mbps. However, the upload speed is only 3 Mbps and it takes an age to synchronise large files to the cloud. They haven’t said if upload speed will increase!
Posted by maxwild 7 months ago
Surely either fibre or ADSL are running on largely the same equipment so similar speeds should be expected.
Any difference between providers will be accounted for by the mix of distance from either box or exchange of the customers of each provider?
How big a difference does "contention" make to this basic physical situation?
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