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Knowledge base ISP view on SFI charges

Dealing with BT and SFI charges

This page is aimed at other ISPs. It explains our point of view and the stance we have taken with BT on SFI visits and charges. I don't doubt that some will disagree with our point of view to some extent. Much of this page is opinion and should be taken as such. I hope it is helpful and I am happy to answer any questions. We don't dislike BT - we wish to work in partnership with BT. In many areas (especially technical) we work well with BT. However, on occasion, we are at odds with BT and SFI charges is one of those cases. We hope this will eventually be resolved one way or another. We are happy to talk to BT further if they wish.

Please bear in mind that a lot of faults are clear cut and not an issue. The tricky ones are those that are intermittent or show no fault on BT testing.

Why is BT SFI a broken concept?

The best way to explain this is an analogy. Imagine you rent a tumble drier (or if you prefer consider you bought it and it is under warranty). If it breaks a man comes out and fixes it - no charge. Simple.

Now, it would not be that unreasonable for them to say "If we come out and find the tumble drier is fine but the problem was in fact a fault in your washing machine, say not spinning the water out, which is why the tumble drier could not work, we'll charge a callout fee". That would not be too bad, though £160 would be a huge call out fee.

Now imagine they say "There is no call out fee, but the service company we use (part of our company) only offer us combined washing machine and tumble drier check visits, so that is all we can offer you"... Not too bad, but there is more: "If they don't find a fault then there is a charge of £160 for checking the washing machine - no it's not a call out fee, it's specifically for the work done on the washing machine". And no amount of "I did not get the washing machine from you, I don't want it checked, I just want the tumble drier sorted" helps you.

Well, that is exactly how BT are running SFI. They make SFI a new service which checks wiring and router as well as the broadband service. They have no option for having it without these extra checks. They charge specifically for the activity beyond the NTE (i.e. these extra checks). They only spend 2 hours on the issue so may well not find an intermittant fault (and so will charge).


Brief history

We buy a service from BT which is IPStream. It is a broadband link at the end user provided on a phone line and connects to us at a BT Central end and carries IP (well, PPP using L2TP). We expect the service to be reliable. The speed of the link depends on the line itself (its Max we are generally talking about). We, or the end user provide equipment for the broadband end. Customers may have extension wiring, and may have splitter/filters on the line. Things can go wrong! One important aspect is that the service is BT's responsibility up to and including the master socket on the phone line, and the handover point is the test socket in the master socket. There is where it must work.

It used to be that when a customer said there was a fault, we would do tests and go through tests with them, and if necessary report a fault. BT would then do tests and would, if necessary, send an engineer. If the engineer did not find the fault, he would go away! If he did, then he would fix it if it was BTs responsibility. Either way there was no charge to us for this. They would not fix customer wiring or equipment.

BT then suggested a new service they could offer which would include (at a cost) the option of sorting the customer wiring and equiment. At that time there was no idea of cost. Importantly there was no suggestion whatsoever that this would replace the normal fault repair that BT did on faulty lines.

It is also important to note that this service turns out to be more expensive than us ordering a brand new PSTN line and a brand new ADSL service on it. It also costs more than a whole year's charges for the service BT are selling us in the first place. Clearly not a competitive price.

Huge bill

Well, one day SFI was launched. The terms published were very clear that there was only a charge if the engineer did maintenance and repair on the non BT maintained customer equipment beyond the NTE. We had no expectation that we would be ordering an SFI.

Then we found BT were saying they would only send an SFI engineer, effectively replacing normal faults engineers. Well, this seemed fine as we were not expecting them to work on customer equipment. In fact we put a note on the appointment DO NO WORK BEYOND NTE just to be sure. In fact, just to be really sure we sent a recorded delivery letter to BTs registered office clearly advising that unless we stated otherwise at the time we were asking them not to do any work beyond the NTE.

BT accepted the appointment requests with the note and having received the letter, so we expected no problem.

Then we got a bill, several thousand pounds for SFI charged. We disputed obviously, on the basis that either the engineer did work beyond the NTE against our instructions or the charge was wrong as he did no work beyond the NTE. This dragged on, several months, bills adding up to well over £10,000 very quickly. We are small ISP and larger ISPs must have huge bills.

BT kept trying to address this as incorrect clear codes. We said we don't care what the clear code was - either way a charge was not valid. BT even sent emails stating categorically that the engineer did not do work beyond the NTE but that the charge still stands. This is a blatent contradiction of the contract terms. I raised this personally in an ISP forum and had to actually show the BT staff the BT terms before they believed me!

Eventually BT took it seriously. We had meetings with BT on the matter. We eventually got the message across to some extent. We cannot go in to any detail on arrangements for the huge bill for SFI due to confidentaility agreements, sorry.

At one point BT suggested that a visual inspection of the custiomer router counted as maintenance work beyond the NTE. We resorted to advising customers to remove and hide the faceplate and equipment and wiring totally (where possible) so there was nothing to even visually inspect. We also advised BT that the owner of the end user equipment and wiring had given no permission for BT to do any maintenance on it. We even went as far as it being a condition of entry to the end user premises that work is confined to the BT network itself.

BT even said they could not accept orders other than on the terms in the contract. We think they kept saying this to try and counter the do no work beyond NTE note. We don't quite understand this as we continued to send appointment requests (we did not consider we were ordering any service) with that note and importantly BT did accept them. So either BTs statement that they would not accept orders was just plain wrong, or BT considered these not to be orders. Either way there would be no charge for the SFI!

Change of terms

BT eventually changed the terms. They now charge for any activity in the end user premises beyond the test point on the NTE. The change was made without the contractual notice. BT eventaully agreed there was not the required notice, though strangely think that the change is still valid, but say they will go through the process of sending notice again. They claim it was a process error and not an underhand change they sneaked in. BT's first draft of the change (as notified as a change for Datastream SFI) said the charge was for work on the customer installation - I pointed out that if they remove the faceplate and router then there is no installation to work on - this may be why the final wording is even more severe.

What we think is BTs point of view

Following the meeting we have some clue as to BTs point of view. BT introduced SFI because "once the engineer is on site and has not found a fault, there is a charge anyway, so he may as well go on and try and fix the fault and get something for that charge". We pointed out that there was no charge for an engineer not finding a fault. Never had been a charge. BT said there is but failed to say where it was in the BT Price List or give an example of us ever being charged such a charge in the past. This means the fundamental premis for creating SFI charges is flawed.

Basically, BT want to get something for when an engineer is sent on a wild goose chase - sent to site for something that is not a fault or not a BT fault at least.

This is an understandable point of view in some ways. But BT's contract that BT wrote did not allow them to make such a charge.

So, basically, BT want to charge where they do not find a fault (right when tested). Interestingly we raised the issue of a below fault threshold fault where an engineer goes on site and gets sync which is indeed below threshold. BT report this as right when tested and expected to charge for that even though they are in fact confirming the reported fault! Clearly wrong and we think they understood that in the meeting when we raised it - just they had not considered it.

Our point of view

Well, in principle, we would be happy paying for a BT engineer if we did not take all reasonble steps to eliminate customer problems first, and it turned out to be a customer problem. In fact, in cases like this, we would have no real issue with charging the customer for this as they must have at least mis-led us for this to happen.

One issue is BT made the contract such that they did not charge for this, and they are the ones making the rules here! So it is their choice not to have a contract term saying that. They have to then stick to the contract which, in our opinion, they were not doing.

Another issue is that if we have done everything you could expect us to do before calling a BT engineer (see below), and the engineer does not find the fault because maybe it has gone away who, morally, should pay for that? We have done our bit. What concerns us is that we have seen many faults magically and very distinctively vanish as soon as an engineer starts on the case making one wonder if a network fault was fixed without anyone saying, or maybe some jumpering was re-punched just in case, etc. We would obviously not want to pay in such cases - but fault not being found, and especially fault going away, is a difficult issue. It used to be that we don't pay for that and I see no reason to change that.

Another issue is BT have a monoply on working their side of the NTE. If there was a choice of repair services then I could understand them treating the repair as a service and making a competative charge. There is not. In my opinion they should suffer the inconvenience of a wasted trip occasionally in return for a monopoly working their side of the NTE. Just an opinion.

Another issue is sometimes we can see faults BT can't - largely because we are monitoring lines constantly and BT will put an engineer on the case for like 2 hours. Some faults take longer to happen or only happen some times of day. If the fault can clearly be shown to still be present - no way we should pay.

Doing our bit

We do recognise that some ISPs have in the past simply passed BT all faults and expected BT to sort the problems for no cost. We consider ourselves a more responsible ISP (and that is one of the main reasons we object so much to the SFI regime). We do go through very carefully with end users. We do constant monitoring (LCP echos every second) which gives us a lot of details.

Since SFI started we have done a lot more. We now use a test router. This is a BT supplier BT Voyager V210 router. We have a cut/engraved plastic plate over it blanking the ethernet and fixing the modem lead in place. We then have the same on a faceplate splitter. The only way to get it on line without breaking it (and BT engineers have done so twice!) is to plug in to the test point behind the face plate on the master socket - so eliminating all customer wiring and router and splitter and even modem cable.

We run BER tests constantly and log all stats every 10 minutes including HEC errros, FEC errors, line losses and margins, resync counts, etc, etc. We try and run over night at least 8 hours to get lots of data.

In such a case, if it still does not work, and bearing in mind BT provided us with the router, it has to be BTs fault one way or another. Obviously BT try and pretend it is separate companies, but it is not and so cannot use force majure to blame a third party.

We consider that if we have gone to such lengths we should not have the risk of an SFI charge.

What is odd about BT terms

OK, call me paranoid, but something is up... BT clearly want, and have told us they want, to charge for an engineer that goes out at our request and does not find any fault (right when tested). But the first terms said the charge was for maintenance of EU kit. The second attempt said it was a charge for work on the customer installation. The third said it was a charge for activity in the customer premises. It gives the impression that BT are avoiding simply making a charge for a call out or engineer visit. They are trying to make the charge for something they are not obliged to do (i.e. for something that is not work on the BT network). Why? Something strange here.

What we do now to handle BT and SFI

OK, practical tips!

  • We make sure we do our bit - carefully go through tests with the customer - and if we think it is sensible send a test router and run over night.
  • Once we are confident, call BT to insist they fix the fault. When offered the SFI service, explain we do not wish to buy that service thank you - we have already eliminated the end user equipment so an end-to-end maintenance service is not appropriate. The service is not working at the handover point at the master socket so BT have to fix it.
  • Escalate if no luck with that (basically every time)
  • (new) Using the XML fault reporting we reject the appointment request and send the fault back to BT, repeating until they read the notes and progress the fault further.
  • When booking the appointment always add This is not an order for an SFI visit (done automatically by our XML system)
  • Always check clear codes and report any that come up as C2/C3/C8 (chargable) so they can immediately be disputed.
  • If a customer is impatient and insistent on an engineer, offer SFI but explain possible charge and file call recording for later billing.
  • Always pursue faults repeatedly until fix as a final clear of BT fault negates any SFI charges.
  • Check bills for charges where different clear codes were used - BT have started doing this.
  • Do not take any crap from BT but always be calm, firm and polite.
  • Ask BT if they are refusing to fix a fault if we don't order their end-to-end maintenance service. So far BT always avoid saying this, so always a good one to ask, followed by "If you are not refusing to fix the fault, then fix it, now!"
  • Other ISPs, please dispute the change to IPStream SFI changes that was done without the required notice.

Crazy cases

  • BT insisting we order an SFI to do a lift and shift which is entirely exchange work, and being very insistent!
  • Many times BT stating no work done beyond NTE but charges apply (on old terms).
  • BT engineers breaking the engraved plastic off the faceplate splitter on our test routers, twice!
  • BT billing for a fault that was clear code OR15 and so simply not a chargable clear code

Progress

As of April 2008 we now have the XML SOAP T2R for faults. This has changed things. Now, when a fault gets to awaiting appointment we are able to simply bounce it back to BT with an explanation. Before this eCo would not allow us to progress beyond awaiting appointment and we had to call and convince someone to return the fault for diagnostics. Now we don't have to call, it is a lot easiler and quicker to progress a fault until BT actually fix it.

The whole issue of terms requiring use to buy activity beyond the NTE if we need any engineer is still there. We are trying putting "The end user makes it a condition of entry to the premises that the engineer confine his activity to the BT side of the NTE". No idea how that will go down with BT. We will see...

It is also an issue do not actually read the notes, but being able to quickly return faults several times means we can work around that.

It is also an issue that neither the old BBCR stuff or eCo or the new XML T2R stuff actually states unambigiously what the final clear code is for a fault. However BT make it the basis of their charging and expect us to raise disputes (at the time) if it is wrong. We have sent an SOR to BT saying we have to have a clear definitive clear code in the protocol if they wish to charge based on the clear code. We suggest other ISPs do likewise.

More

To highlight the stupidity of the whole issue we have now formally offered BT a service called Standard Fault Investigation which they can order from us if they like.