Sunday, October 29, 2006

History Matters - the nation blogs

I just put this into the History Matters blog. They want to know what everyone was doing on 17 October. What they did for work, for play, and what they were reading. You've got two days to put your own diary in...
In the 1840s, the saxophone was invented. So was the concertina. Both have had a varied history since then, but have had little to do with each other.

I could claim to have brought them together at Ronnie Scott's jazz club in London on 17 October, but I'd be lying.

The truth is that, as midnight struck, I was at the cloakroom, checking in a concertina I can't actually play, before hearing a performance by saxophonist Branford Marsalis - who certainly can play. I had the concertina for a Morris dance practice earlier on.

After the show I cycled home, past Trafalgar Squre and the Houses of Parliament, to Brixton. I read a little - a Patrick O Brian novel, about Nelson's Navy - and slept for three hours.

I work as a tech journalist, and on 17 October, I was covering the Smartphone Show at Excel. It was a long cycle ride there, but a nice route - I went through New Cross, past my old school, past the Hawksmoor church and the Cutty Sark at Greenwich, and under the Foot Tunnel. the tunnel is 100 years old, and I used to go through daily to my first ever job in 1977. Cycling is still forbidden, and people still scoot their bikes through it, as if that's not really cycling.

At the conference, the president of Symbian told a lot of press and industry that we are on the verge of a whole new world, that will be brought about by mobile phoens that can do email, web and video conferencing. They'll be more important than the PC he said and will wipe out world hunger (well he more or less said that).

History will no doubt be the judge.

Back home, I had tea with my family. I have three daughters and usually see more of them in a day than I am tonight.

I went to a book group. We'd been reading Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. None of us were very impressed. I think the book is over-rated because of its role in reversing censorship. As history, as a landmark, it's interesting, as writing it's interesting, but dated. There are plenty of better books out there.

The group consists of seven men, all with children, and all living within a mile of each other. We've been meeting for two years. We don't go very deeply into the books; we drink wine and talk.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Robot book is painful to read

We've all had the experience of reading a book someone has recommended - and hating it. It's still a surprise to plough through a book the Guardian describes as "A classic novel.. it reeks simultaneously of Candide, Player Piano and The Wizard of Oz", and find it unreadable.

There are spoilers here, but I wouldn't recommend the book to anyone, so don't worry. Roderick by John Sladek, is painfully hip, in a sort of 1970s way. This means it's full of throwaway remarks and Big Ideas, all referred to rather than explored, and overlaying and strangling an episodic story where nothing much actually happens.

Roderick himself doesn't even appear for the first hundred pages or so, because Sladek is too busy painting a tedious and un-funny picture of all the ins-and-outs of a small university, with pointless subplots about the Shah of Ruritania (he's rich, and doesn't understand Western ways! Ha ha!) and a bad poet and a poor student (he reads Lord of the Rings instead of Ring Lardner! Ho ho!)

When the story properly starts, I'm ready for the profound ideas. And sure enough, it's full of references to other people's thoughts on artificial intelligence. Name checks, that is, for the titles of books, or quick asides about golem myths. To be fair, Sladek has clearly done his homework. He works in so many, I never want to hear another one.

While that's going on, we get more of Sladek's ideas of what would be funny. And we get them all over again, because as we all know a joke is even funnier if you repeat it.

There's s a priest who's too busy running the school sports to do his job. Whenever he appears he's ordered another set of sports kit, with another amusing misprint. There's a doctor who's too busy playing golf and developing property. Every time he appears, he amusingly gets the name of his patients' medication wrong. How hilarious.

Roderick's step-parents seem like they're going to be intersting, but like every other character in this book, they turn into completely contrived cyphers for punning jokes, and unlikely plot developments. They turn out not to be what they appear - but who cares?

I've made it to the end of the first of the books paired here - partly because I remember laughing out loud at The Muller-Fokker Effect as a teenager. I don't think I'll last through the second part, Roderick at Random.

Luckily, it's a library book. Unluckily, it's fallen apart. A previous reader must have found it as hard going as I did, and got stuck. I can't see any other reason why the book should fall open - and apart - at page 54.

Broadband crisis over

As predicted, my broadband is now seriously boring. For the last two weeks,my download speed has hovered around 6M, and uploads around 400k (speed measured at ADSL Guide).

I've retired TalkTalk's SpeedTouch as my router only needed a bit of time to get used to the new provision. I've needed to reboot it about once a week, which is irritating by no big hassle. ut I hope they improve on it though.

The phone service is working all right -- except for one day when the 1471 feature packed up. I also now have two VoIP phone lines permanently available.

If I was thinking of going to TalkTalk now, I probably wouldn't (unless I was on an exchange which had definitely been unbundled some time ago) but I'm staying put now it's here - unless something awful happens.

That's all.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

TalkTalk - the boring phase begins

After yesterday's excitement, it looks like I'm going to be setting down to routing broadband niggles like the rest of the world.

Yesterday, broadband seemed to be available at a nominal 8 Mbit/s but slower real speeds of course. I checked the speed at ADSL Guide and apparently had 120k (for comparison, the GPRS phone connection I've been using for the last fortnight gives me 33k at the same site).

Then the connection went, Then it came back And so on. All very normal for day one of an unbundled service. When it went off for a lengthy period, I phoned TalkTalk, and discovered the problems everyone else knows - I've had to go back a generation.

TalkTalk won't do a lot of support unless you use their equipment - a USB-connected
Alcatel/Thomson SpeedTouch. This is the old-fashioned frog, used by BT for a long while, in a new casing. It takes broadband and makes it look like fast dial-up, and won't do all the things I've been taking
for granted like sharing the Internet round the house.

I'm up for trying anything new (old), and it does seem unfair to expect them to help with unfamiliar equipment over the phone (even if it's a lovely Fritz box, with good diagnostics, that's been working happily for months). So I've installed the USB modem and - lo and behold! - I'm getting 2.9 Mbit/s over it.

My support guy tells me it's possibly due to attentuation in the house - the SpeedTouch may be less fussy and work with a weaker signal than the Fritz. I'm not sure, but that means the next thing to do is try the Fritz in the master socket...

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

I'm back online

I've been at ZDNet today working, among other things, on ZDNet's and Techworld's coverage of today's TalkTalk news.

I saw a post from one user, saying: "Today after three months hell, I'm cancelling my contract with TalkTalk and going back to AOL". Won't he be surprised, eh readers?

Anyway, I just had a call from home, and then some IMs. Seems like the service is back up again.

Apparently we even got a courtesy call from a TalkTalk engineer: "I'm standing right next to a BT engineer, and we wanted to make sure it works before he goes home." I wonder if that was in the exchange? I thought no-one but BT OpenReach could set foot there.

Finally, as I head for home, I can see just how naive and foolish I am. I'm already wondering what speed I've got!

TalkTalk's LLU failure -- the final nail

Here's proof that TalkTalk has failed at LLU, from the Guardian:

Dan Gardiner, an analyst at Bridgewell Securities, said while customer
numbers connected by TalkTalk were in-line with expectations, "the most interesting feature of today\'s statement is the admission that only 20,000 of its customers have been migrated onto its unbundled local loop platform so far."

"This is considerably less than our forecast and will have a significant impact on Carphone\'s costs."
That's right. 625,000 signed up. 421,000 are on broadband, so 200,000 are waiting, and costing TalkTalk in callcentre costs and (one expects) eventual cancellations.

Of the 421,000 customers connected, only 20,000 are potentially profitable. The other 400,000 are on BT Wholesale connections. So TalkTalk is buying 400,000 broadband lines from BT, and having to give them away for nothing.

The only way out is to move people to unbundled lines. And it is failing to do so.

Why TalkTalk's troubles will get worse

Carphone Warehouse has announced results today, including a £70 million loss on its TalkTalk division, which retails BT's broadband while putting its own equipment in phone exchanges to offer "unbundled" services. The company is hoping that the long-term investment in local-loop unbundling (LLU) will eventually offset the loss from buying wholesale broadband form BT, and supporting customers who a.

Carphone thinks LLU will save it from the troubles its broadband offer have created. I don't agree.

Here's one news report:
In all, the group had penciled in a 160 mln stg investment in the broadband business, most of which will be spent on putting its own equipment into BT Group local exchanges.

So far, it has 'unbundled' 370 of these exchanges, and the group said it remains 'well on course' for having a presence in 1,000 exchanges by May next year.
Elsewhere, we hear Carphone Warehouse has "had to pay to use BT services while it waits for its own high-speed internet access into homes to be fitted" (This is Money). So LLU will save the day?

Not as far as I can see. My two weeks speaking to various people within TalkTalk leads me to the conclusion that TalkTalk simply does not have the back-end systems or organisation to manage LLU. The systems and bureaucracy within the company are separated from each other, and cannot talk to each other, which will lead to massive over-spend, since every fault will incur vastly more cost than necessary.

TalkTalk's internal systems are broken up and Balkanised at least as badly as BT's were in the old days of British Telecom. In the old days, British Telecom's telephone faults could sometimes go unfixed for days or weeks, while BT's departments passed the buck amongst themselves. One division would be convinced the fault was in the local loop, while another believed it was in the house. Neither would do anything, because they believe it was someone else's problem.

BT has learned from that problem. TalkTalk is repeating it.

To someone in TalkTalk's Faults department, An LLU problem looks like an unfixable "cease order" that can only be traced to BT. To the LLU department, it looks like one of theirs, but maybe it's to do with the account creation?

These problems are real and so far TalkTalk has "declined to comment" on the above.

I asked the PR agency for comment; instead my request got treated as a nag from someone "playing the journalist card" and al I got yet another illustration of TalkTalk's troubles.

As a journalist, my special treatment extends to someone from TalkTalk, called Sat, actually phoning me (imagine that!). He promised to sort it out.

Two days later, I phoned him back and guess what? Can you guess? "It's an LLU issue, sir." He has a colleague called Jonathan who can deal with that. Two more days, and I haven't heard from Jonathan.

Today is the date when LLU promised me the problem would be fixed -- that was a promise made on Friday by someone called Ken, that Kevin Parkin (or Perkin?) would have it resolved in "72 working hours".

As I say, the story is that TalkTalk's problems extend well beyond its difficulties in delivering IPstream DSL services from BT Wholesale. LLU seems to be beyond its ability.

BT has been slammed for failing to support LLU properly, which can't be making things easier at TalkTalk LLU, but TalkTalk LLU seems to have an impossible position within TalkTalk as a whole.

I believe that Carphone Warehouse is heading for an even bigger broadband loss and an even bigger remedial investment when its LLU troubles become public.

Oh, and if that's not enough, Carphone wants to buy AOL UK, too. That should be aumusing.

Friday, October 06, 2006

BT and TalkTalk play pingpong with my head

If possible, things are worse today. How much worse? Well imagine holding simultaneously for BT and TalkTalk on two mobile phones. Then speaking to them simultaneously. And being told at the end that your phone will be back on again by next Wednesday. Probably.

I was on the phone for three hours to TalkTalk, alternately on hold and talking to their Faults department. Eventually, they repeated the story that I was cut off because of a "cease order" from BT. This was different from the order that they had through Opal Telecom to unbundle the line, and they couldn't tell me who it came from. I had to phone BT.

I was told, again, that the only way to get service back was to speak to BT. Once again, I reacted with disbelief; my advisor (David, a patient man who admitted he was learning the system and said that my account was the most complex he had seen) went away to get more information. He told me that I would need to start a new contract with BT (that wouldn't start for ten working days) and would then tie me in for three months, before considering changing provider again.

According to his records, it's just that some other provider, not TalkTalk, has requested BT to cease providing my service.

It took a long while to get this clear, but that seemed to be the position of TalkTalk's Faults department. But, I said, I had already tried the BT route yesterday, and ended up at TalkTalk's local loop unbundling (LLU) department, who assured me that it was just a line in the exchange that needed fixing.

So David agreed to transfer me across to TalkTalk's LLU again.

While that's going on, I dialled the BT number, on another phone. I then had TalkTalk's hold music ("We have got to get it together") in one ear on a T-Mobile phone, and BT's (Grieg's Morning) in the other ear, courtesy of O2.

Eventually, someone at BT called Phil answered. This time, he said, oh yes, there WAS a cease order on this line. He couldn't tell me who from. He couldn't see who from. But I just had to say the word, and he could set me up with a brand new line. Like David told me, it would take 10 working days, and I'd have to stay with BT for three months.

By this time, TalkTalk's LLU department has answered the phone, and there's a man called Richard in my left hear, hearing half of my conversation with Phil from BT. "No, sir, don't do it," says Richard. "BT aren't even involved in this."

I tell Phil from BT that he's offering a rather extreme answer (espceially if he can't tell me for sure why I'm cut off). I tell him I'll get back to him, I hang up, and I carry on my talk with Richard from TalkTalk.

He disagrees completely with his colleague David, from TalkTalk's faults department. He says there's no other phone company involved, and all I have to do is wait for his department to sort it out and fix the fault. He can't actually see what the fault is: "sometimes we plug a line into our equipment and its dead on arrival". Someone at the exchange wil be able to make it work, he says.

I ring off. I've had three hours of "We have got to get it together".

While I'm on the phone, the post has come. There's a letter from TalkTalk. It's addressed to me, but it has a different account number, which I've never seen before.

The letter speaks to me as if I am a new customer, and says "In our attempts to connect you to TalkTalk, there's been a small hitch. Unfortunately, BT has advised us that it is not possible to put a TalkTalk connection through on the telephone number we currently hold on our records." It suggests that I've given them a wrong number (no), I've got a new telephone number that isn't in BT's database yet (nope), or I'm a cable customer (no again).

I go back to TAlkTalk's LLU department. I get someone called Ken -- he knows who Richard is. Now, Ken is interested to have two account numbers for me. In fact, that's putting it mildly. He's flipping from screen to screen on his system, seeing things he didn't know were even possible. He calls in a senior colleague, Kevin, who has superior powers.

Keven suddenly realises what's happening. Apparently it's not a fault. It's an admin glitch. My line isn't cut off, but it's not shown as active. It's not disconnected, it's in a "limbo state". Kevin has taken his laptop into his office, Ken tells me. Kevin can fix it.

From Ken's tone, the owrds "laptop" and "office" are enough to make Kevin a superior being - and from my time in open-plan offices, I know what he means.

Ken tells me it will be fixed, and I can call him back if it doesn't come live. And he gives me Kevin's number.

When should I call? Well, it should be live in "72 working hours". That's sometime around Wednesday lunchtime. So on Day 15 of the problem, TalkTalk might fix the administrative error that started the trouble.

That is, if this error really was the cuase of the problem. I'm still not convinced.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Heart of Local Loop Darkness

TalkTalk is excelling itself with incompetence and overloading. Call its Faults department and - if you aren't told they're busy so call back later - it takes around 30 minutes to connect you to someone who may know nothing about local loop unbundling and broadband.

Yesterday (my eighth day of no broadband or telephone) was a classic. I was assured that I had been disconnected because of "instructions from BT". I tried to get more of an explanation - as this made no sense according to my understanding of the way local loop unbundling works. BT has indeed switched their service off - the problem is that Carphone Warehouse's subsidiary, TalkTalk's sister company Opal Telecom, should be providing a service but isn't.

"BT made us do it," said the TalkTalk Faults guy, sounding more and more strange and otherworldly. "They don't tell us why, they give us instructions." TalkTalk hears voices, you know.

In the end, after I'd asked for more information once too often, he hung up on me (that's a first for me) leaving me to call the BT number he gave me. Sure enough, BT confirmed that my TalkTalk Faults person had indeed been talking utter rubbish.

Was he just making something up to get rid of me? Or is it just that TalkTalk's back-end systems are poorly designed and overloaded, and I got one of the army of new call-centre staff it's taken on, who simply couldn't make sense of what the system told him?

I've got a recording of the call, which I'll put online when I'm not connecting by GPRS (as I have been for a week now).

Today's call was a little better, though massively longer. I had a total of two hours on hold music, while I took my daughter to school and chatted with another unbundling victim at the school gates. There's clearly serious trouble at the Tulse Hill Exchange (8674 code).

When I got back, still on hold I tried to pick out the tune on the concertina. I'm never going to get good at this, but it's nice to have something to play along to. "We have got to get it togetherm now!"

I checked my email. I'm tying up two mobile phones here, to do voice and data that should be on my landline.

Finally, TalkTalk answered. I spoke to someone who actually understood unbundling, and agreed that what I needed was for TalkTalk to get Opal Telecom to send BT OpenReach (they stil own the exchange and have the keys, basically round to fix the problem. I'm priority one, apparently, because I've got no phone or broadband.

They still can't put a date on it though. That's because TalkTalk is completely overloaded and, I increasingly feel, incompetent to handle unbundling.

It's ironic really, because eight years ago, I was cheering on the efforts of Oftel ( as Ofcom was then) to force BT into unbundling. BT argued that it would cause chaos, but we knew unbundling was the only way to get fast broadband and choice.

A smiling BT engineer in Christchurch Road directed me to the Tulse Hill Exchange and put the BT case again, much more convincingly. "Unbundling? Ha ha!" he said.

The exchange, in New Park Road, is an old building, with racks visible inside. It is strange to see the centre of my communications universe, and find it so barren and desolate. The lights are on, and someone is walking around upstairs.

Apparently they've got plenty of other lines to fix before mine though, because mine's still dead.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

TalkTalk Troubles

You're going to tell me I shouldn't be relying on a cheap broadband service. But over the last month, it's been fine, and I do have backup methods onto the net.

So I shouldn't complain too much when TalkTalk started to creak, and left me with no phone or broadband for nearly a week (so far).

Two weeks ago, I had a letter saying "We're sorry you're leaving." I checked, and they said it was sent in error, as my exchange is being upgraded to TalkTalk equipment.

Last week, the broadband, and then the phone, stopped working.

Since then, it's been like my early days on Demon/BT broadband, in the era when nothing could happen without a BT engineer, and everything was uncertain. Phoning TalkTalk gets little help or response. It takes half an hour to get through, after which they take a mobile number and call you, so you can hold on their bill for another fifteen minutes. Or they take a mobile number and promise to text you when they have information - and don't.

When you speak to someone, they can't tell whether you have an account or not, they don't have records of previous calls, they try to shunt you to the "faults" department, and so on.

After five days, I get a (possibly) definitive answer. There was a problem caused when they upgraded the exchange. Why is it taking so long to fix? And why couldn't they tell me that in the first place? No answer.

So what am I doing? I'm talking to you over GPRS - I've got a Nokia E61 (nice Wi-Fi enabled phone) with an O2 SIM. It's giving me dial-up speeds.

As the TalkTalk hold music says "We have got to get it together". They surely have....