The reputation of BT in Shetland was in shreds this week after the telecoms giant failed to act to get thousands of broadband customers back online. Businesses and thousands of people at home across Shetland encountered persistent problems with some being offline or suffering hopelessly slow internet connections for up to 10 days.
Today the problems were finally solved, ending the agony and anger for island customers. Ian Brown of Shetland Broadband, who was dealing with people’s problems throughout the time, said: “It’s been absolute hell!”
The failure to cure Shetland-wide problems some dating back to Tuesday last week eventually prompted MSP Tavish Scott to wade in to support local communications experts who complained they were making no headway with BT.
BT had declined to act earlier in the week because the lack of complaints led it to believe there was no widespread fault. Once the pressure was applied and it did start to
throw resources at the problem it was unable to find the fault until this morning.
According to an apologetic spokesman Mitch Reid, engineers eventually discovered that service had “degraded” on one of five broadband links between Glasgow and Lerwick. The service was rerouted at 11.12am, finally bringing customers up to speed.
The failure was perhaps the worst in a line of recent system collapses which have seen confidence in BT’s broadband service in Shetland evaporate.
Shetland Islands Council broadband specialist Marvin Smith warned that such problems could jeopardise efforts to harness the “massive” potential to generate money for Shetland through exploiting the internet and email.
He said contracts held by the growing local army of home business workers were also put at risk from prolonged breakdowns and unreliable service, citing the example of one woman he had spoken to this week who was unable to do her internet market research work for the government.
“That’s critical for Shetland,” he said. “It’s money from outside coming into Shetland for homeworkers. We don’t hear much about them but there is a lot of them.
“An economy like Shetland relies on a lot of people doing lots of different pieces of work and if they can’t get broadband connections it’s not just infuriating it actually means they can’t do their work and puts it at risk.”
Mr Brown at Shetland Broadband said it was not just homeworkers but bigger businesses in the islands which risked damage to their reputation if emails went unanswered and work was held up.
BT defended its response, saying that so few ADSL broadband customers had registered a complaint that it was not alerted to the scale of the problem until Wednesday, having checked its lines in Shetland and found no faults. Nor had other internet service providers (ISPs), like Plusnet and Tiscali/Talk Talk, notified it of mass problems encountered by their customers in Shetland.
Mr Reid said this afternoon it had received only 38 fault reports from customers complaining that their broadband was running very slowly.
The problems appeared to have no pattern to them, affecting customers of most ISPs but not at all times in all places. Some reported to Shetland Broadband that their internet connection was so slow it was like being back in the first days of going online in the 1990s when even a simple web page took minutes to load up.
Eventually, late on Wednesday afternoon, BT Wholesale finally announced to business customers what they already knew only too well – that there was a fault, issuing a message carrying the stock phrase: “Engineers are making progress towards full restoration of service.” It set an expected clear time of 16.59. But the target was missed like many before it last week.
At the time Mr Reid said the fault seemed to “lie deep within the system”, possibly on the mainland, after BT Openreach engineers had found no faults in the Shetland lines.
With talk of customers demanding refunds or withholding BT payments, Mr Reid apologised for the lengthy loss of service and slow speed of detection. “We’re sorry that people are experiencing problems but it’s very difficult for ourselves to become aware there is a widespread problem if people are not reporting them to us.”
He said the company had not been able to see the faults on its system and had only “a handful” of complaints. It had believed the last of the problems had been remedied following the second of last week’s failures, which happened at a “node” in Edinburgh on Wednesday.
But Mr Smith from the SIC said many people would not use the BT “helpdesk” because it was so frustrating. “Anybody that’s a BT customer knows fine well there is no point in phoning the call centre because they go through this process to presume that it’s your fault and your problem and they won’t accept it is a fault on their network, so people don’t phone to log the fault.”
People’s frustration with the lack of response after contacting the BT “helpdesk” led to Mr Brown inviting those who were not his customers to contact him about their experiences so that he had a dossier of evidence to press home to BT the seriousness of the problem.
“We are saying: ‘Look we have all these people with a problem. It can’t just be individual line faults.’”
He took the action after being told on Tuesday by BT that all known ADSL faults affecting Shetland had been cleared. “They don’t seem to care,” he said on Wednesday. “They don’t seem to be able to be shamed into doing anything!”
He said the continuing lack of resolution to the failures was ridiculous with lines being off from Unst to Sumburgh and customers who were used to getting speeds of 2.5 Megabytes a second having to endure a totally unusable three kilobytes/sec.
He said the problems stretched back to October which had been “a diabolic month” with 10 so-called outages lasting from four minutes to five hours 50 minutes. Then on 2nd November the lightning strike in Sanday, Orkney, took out about half Shetland’s broadband users and the following day a recurrence of the Edinburgh problem wiped all BT-dependent customers out for a few hours. Despite BT’s assurance that all faults were rectified by Saturday evening it became obvious that was patently untrue.