By Simon Woodhead
I’m old enough to remember the BA Dirty Tricks campaign against Virgin, where BA admitted to trying to poach Virgin customers and spreading hostile rumours about Virgin. It was a humiliating climbdown for BA and arguably a victory that opened up competition in aviation. In our opinion (and it is opinion – the reader must form their own), history is repeating itself, this time with another two-letter former monopoly: BT. This needs to be stopped for the protection of consumers everywhere.
Our concerns revolve around BT’s IPEX managed service, which we welcome at a technical level (IP is the future) but can see the road to re-monopolisation unfolding before our eyes. We’ve been very vocal about it over the years, but the stakes appear to be getting higher and our regulator appears to remain unwilling, or incapable, of acting. For our part, we’ve referred the issue to the Competition and Markets Authority, a competent authority in these matters, and we would urge all readers to do the same before it is too late. If they conclude Ofcom are the appropriate authority to address this, which is the default position, we may as well all give up.
“It worked when I was with BT”
We’ve pointed out before how BT has created a microcosm of itself in IPEX, complete with its own porting team. Competitive operators are forced to deal with Openreach in India who in turn need to contact the UK – yep, we wait on hold while they wait on hold, to then be told to ring back later. Meanwhile, the UK IPEX team throws the full weight of “we’re from BT” around directly in demanding ports from other operators. They’re not very good at it and make numerous mistakes, such as taking numbers back without consulting anyone (shunning agreed industry processes) and then demanding help six months later when their 999 records are out of date. It also takes them numerous attempts to complete any paperwork correctly for ports from other operators. This is all largely invisible to the man on the street but is a complete waste of time, energy, and cost for the rest of the industry. You could almost say it was designed to weight the dice in BT’s favour. Coincidence?
What is less covert though is when this process “accidentally” takes customers out of service. Take the recent example of another operator who’d lost a customer to IPEX, before the end user decided to port the number to a Simwood customer – a simple ‘subsequent port’. After the port, the number failed from all IPEX connected networks which of course includes EE mobile etc. It took two weeks and dozens of phone calls and emails for them to correctly do what they confirmed repeatedly they had done, i.e. delete the routing of that number on IPEX. All that had to be done indirectly via Openreach as we’re not allowed to talk to them (the BT IPEX team) because we’re not a reseller of their product. The customer’s experience: they left a BT reseller and things stopped working. They don’t see the effort that went on behind the scenes, they just know they were out of service for two weeks. Coincidence?
We then have to consider another end-user’s experience once they’re off-BT. SIP to TDM inter-working and routing is not 100% fool-proof so take BT’s own transference of traffic between transports, mix in a member of the secret club or two and it is little surprise that UK infrastructure is worse off as a result. We find repeated instances of numbers not being reachable off-IPEX and indeed not being reachable from a competitive operator where IPEX is somewhere (usually unknown) in the mix. For example, we’ve had Vodafone numbers unreachable over Vodafone, through no direct fault of Vodafone – they were ported to a BT reseller on IPEX and Vodafone were (we believe) passing the traffic through their secret club connection. Solution: send all the traffic to BT, spend hours fixing other peoples problems, or just accept the smaller operator will always be regarded as the one at fault. Coincidence?
Finally, when it is all too much and that end-user decides they need to move on, what happens? Well, take the scenario where “me too” have ported off-IPEX. That is a massive rarity of course as IPEX resellers usually deny the existence of the capability to port off-IPEX, even when presented with BT’s manual detailing ‘Scenario 7 off-net’. One factor might be the cost to them of doing so; co-incidence? However, let’s assume that they do (and to be fair, a few do), well our understanding is that Scenario 7 enables the number to leave IPEX only once. Thus, when our user wishes to leave the competitive non-BT-reseller and the barrage of co-incidences haven’t sapped their will to find someone that doesn’t splash the BT logo over their website (and usually Ofcom’s because they’re so big and clever they’re regulated by Ofcom), what happens? Well, from our understanding and experience to date, the porting off-net can be undone enabling the customer to go back to BT or a BT reseller, but cannot be replaced. Thus, even if our end-user has the strength of character and intellect to stay out of the BT fold, they cannot. Their only option is to return to BT or a BT reseller. Of course, who’s fault is this? It can’t be the “me too” operator who created the situation in the first place as they’re now forgotten, it can’t be poor little BT, it can only be that evil competitive operator who doesn’t want to let them leave. Coincidence?
There are far too many coincidences here, and they’re not isolated examples! This situation could be remedied by Ofcom with two simple steps;
- Dictate that IP is simply a transport alongside SS7 and that the existing Regulated Interconnect model can be used for an IP interconnect. Presently this is what we believe BT call IPEX Type B operators, and we know better as the ‘Secret Club’. Rather than commercial terms varied for the chosen few, make IP a right for those with a Standard Interconnect Agreement. There are some subtleties and games to watch out for here such as the level of transit they will seek to charge; we have some very enlightening emails on their thinking here that they accidentally sent us.
- Mandate that BT assume responsibility for number ranges hosted on IPEX and that they’re included under all BT porting agreements. This would make numbers portable in the same way, through Openreach, whether BT Retail or those assigned to a BT reseller. This would include dismantling any obstacles erected to cater for the various ‘Scenarios’. In our view, any number should be able to leave the BT network in the same way, and not be disadvantaged for doing so and an operator with a porting agreement with BT should have access to all numbers on BT equally. We do this the other way round for numbers hosted on Simwood and we know others do the same. Consumers cannot be expected to understand these complications, and shouldn’t need to in a fair and transparent marketplace.
Hopefully, the CMA will act and give us a competitive environment worthy of the world’s fifth largest economy. Meanwhile, I am very willing to discuss this with the media.