According to Ofcom,
‘It’s never been simpler to switch your broadband’.
But, for an unfortunate minority, the process is still mired in complexity, confusion and delay.
I endured almost five weeks without broadband, at a time when Covid lockdown restrictions made me even more than normally dependent on what has become an essential service.
Yet, as far as I can establish, the pandemic had negligible impact on the quality of service I received from any of the companies concerned – these problems would have occurred even if Covid had never blighted our lives.
The Ofcom compensation scheme will in due course offer some limited recompense for the stress, disruption and inconvenience I experienced.
But it is wholly inadequate and urgently needs reforming, so that the penalties for such extended breaks in service are more punitive, more commensurate with the cost to those who suffer them.
Ditching Virgin Media
I had fresh in my memory the extended loss of service, beginning on 19 December 2019, when cables were accidentally ripped up by a third party engaged in construction work. It took four days to splice the fibres back together and, at one point, even Virgin’s service status page failed.
The meagre £16 compensation I received for that outage served only to highlight my exorbitant out-of-contract monthly bill, which fell just a few pounds short of £90 per month – well over £1,000 per year.
I had last reviewed my Virgin package in October 2017 and its cost had increased by 10% in the intervening period.
I was paying for M100 Fibre Broadband (100Mbps), a Full House (XL) TV service with a V6 Box and telephone line rental with Talk Unlimited.
During the first Covid lockdown I found myself watching very little television and using my landline hardly at all. So, on 6 July, I contacted one of Virgin’s call centres to explore the options.
Virgin makes it exceptionally easy to upgrade one’s packages online, but those seeking to downgrade have to take their chances with the infamous call centres.
I wonder why that is…
If you want to leave, someone UK-based is deployed to dissuade you, but those wishing to downgrade without leaving are invariably put through to somewhere on the Indian subcontinent.
At the time callers were actively discouraged by voice messages saying how busy the call centres were, owing to Covid.
But, in my experience, the waiting times are always protracted. And there was no advertised alternative to calling one of these centres, such as email or social media.
I wonder why that is…
And, when one finally gets through, the lines can be faint and have the propensity to drop out. Some of the employees also have strong accents that can be hard for the English ear to follow.
My phone records show that I started my call at 11:40. Some 40 minutes later I was connected to an agent.
I had to keep asking him to repeat himself, as the line faded intermittently, even though I was using a Virgin mobile to call a Virgin freephone number.
I asked him to find me a package that, while retaining a similar internet speed, supplied only basic TV channels and a minimal landline service.
He insisted, repeatedly, that this was completely impossible and eventually offered instead a package incorporating additional TV channels, but at a reduced rate of £68.99 per month.
That was a saving of roughly £20 per month but still much more than I wanted to pay.
Finally, and reluctantly, I agreed, thinking that I could maybe adopt that as an interim solution, returning for a second downgrade in a few months’ time.
The agent then put me on hold to ‘complete the transaction’ only for my call to drop out completely while I waited. I found myself transferred, inexplicably, to directory enquiries!
I tried to use Virgin’s online complaint handling service to establish whether or not the changes had gone through, as I couldn’t face queuing for another call to India.
My complaint was acknowledged and, though I was told someone would contact me imminently to resolve the issue, no-one did.
My next bill was equally exorbitant.
So I began carefully to research alternatives and, having eventually selected a new provider, I telephoned Virgin’s ‘thinking of leaving’ service on 28 September.
By this stage I was determined to break with Virgin, and to resist the agent’s various wiles and blandishments.
Our conversation concluded with him asking what it would take to persuade me to stay with Virgin, to which I replied:
‘For you to offer your services to me entirely free of charge’,
To which he responded:
‘Like that’s going to happen’.
And with that one, single bound I was free!
My new ISP
Virgin relies on fibre optic cable run to a local node, using copper (telephone) or coaxial (broadband and TV) cable to make the connections from the node to each household.
Unless you’re seeking a fast and expensive full-fibre service, most other providers use fibre optic cable laid from the nearest telephone exchange to a street cabinet, with copper telephone wires supplying both the telephone and broadband services to each household.
This means that they and you are heavily reliant on Openreach, now an independent subsidiary of BT, whose job it is to maintain the infrastructure.
But, if their service lets you down, you can’t complain directly to Openreach – which considers itself a wholesale supplier – you have to complain to your internet provider instead.
I’d decided I no longer needed a discreet TV package, because I could use broadband to stream what limited television I consume. Over the summer I’d trialed an Amazon Firestick, which was more than adequate for my needs.
For broadband and a basic telephone service I selected Zen Internet as my new provider.
My experience with Virgin’s iffy customer service naturally inclined me positively towards a company consistently rated so highly in that regard.
For example, ‘Which’ (paywalled) recently gave Zen a customer service score of 87%, a full seventeen percentage points ahead of its nearest rival and way better than Virgin (55%).
‘Which’ also informed me that some 59% of Zen’s customers rate its service as excellent too.
Because I was aiming to save money on my package, I decided against Zen’s more expensive ‘fibre to the premises’ offer.
Instead I chose its popular Unlimited Fibre 2 service, with a slightly slower average download speed – 79-80Mbps compared with Virgin’s advertised 100Mbps.
I also ordered a repeater to ensure coverage throughout the house, plus telephone line rental. I opted to keep my existing telephone number, little suspecting what trouble this would later cause me.
The monthly cost was almost exactly half my Virgin Media bill – and Zen also give a precious ‘lifetime price guarantee’, meaning that the monthly price remains unchanged after the initial 12-month contract ends, for as long as you continue with that service.
The handover process seemed to go without a hitch.
Virgin gave 30 days’ notice, so would switch off their service on 28 October. I contacted Zen Internet immediately after speaking with Virgin. My router and repeater arrived promptly.
An appointment with an Openreach engineer was confirmed for 13 October and I dutifully completed the text-based pre-appointment questionnaire they sent me.
But at that stage I was completely in the dark, having never transferred provider before.
I queried with Zen a statement from them that my order incorporated a new phone number and they undertook to retain my existing number as I had originally requested.
The Openreach engineer came on the appointed day, at the appointed hour. He tested my existing master telephone socket and a first floor extension socket, declaring them both fine. He disregarded the old BT master socket, located just beneath the other.
He offered to connect my router, but I pointed out Zen’s advice that:
‘If you are switching suppliers please leave the old router connected until it stops working, then connect your Zen router and wait for activation.’
He said his colleague would immediately make the connection at the street cabinet and I duly received confirmation from Zen that the service was live, two weeks ahead of Virgin flicking the off switch.
I didn’t object to paying two providers simultaneously for the overlap.
On 15 October I received confirmation from Zen that renumbering, back to my previous Virgin number, would be completed by 23 October. This was subsequently confirmed by automated email on 26 October.
Meanwhile though, I decided that using the Virgin service until it disconnected was a huge hostage to fortune: I wanted to make sure the Zen service worked properly ahead of that deadline because, if it didn’t, I would lose all internet service until the fault was rectified.
So, on Sunday 25 October, I disconnected the Virgin router and connected the Zen router in its place – and that’s when my troubles began.
Zen and Openreach mess up…
The router would not run through the activation sequence when connected to the phone line – I tried both the master and extension telephone sockets.
And, when I unplugged and reconnected my telephone, I discovered there was no dialling tone either.
This was, in the jargon, ‘total loss of service’.
I knew the phone had been working a few days earlier, but I hadn’t used it since. I recalled that someone who normally uses my landline phoned my mobile number instead when trying to reach me on Saturday evening, though they didn’t mention if they’d tried the landline first.
I made my first call to Zen’s much-vaunted customer services team on Monday 26 October. It was a pleasure to speak to someone in the UK and, though an automated message warned that delays were possible as the team was working from home, I was put through within ten minutes.
The person at the other end conducted a few remote tests and confirmed there was an external fault at the street cabinet, or somewhere between it and my property.
When I insisted that I needed Zen’s service ready for when Virgin’s closed down, he raised a fault with Openreach, confirming to me that an engineer would attend to the problem at some point between 08:00 and 20:00 on 28 October.
I mentioned the curious fact that the phone line had continued working perfectly following activation of Zen’s service, but that the fault had appeared to coincide with the change back to my original phone number.
The customer services representative mentioned, sotto voce, that it was strange but their record continued to show that my service hadn’t been connected…
The service was still down when I next called Zen on the morning of Thursday 29 October.
This time the adviser I spoke with told me that Openreach had not shown up – indeed the appointment had been cancelled on Zen’s automated system almost immediately after it was made.
No one had monitored this, so they were unaware (they claimed) that the fault had not been rectified, and they did not know to contact me.
When I asked what might have happened, this consultant hypothesised that subsequent work in the street cabinet might have knocked out the connection, or bad weather might have played a part. Once again I mentioned the coincidence that the fault had coincided with the change of number.
He spoke with his fault manager (putting me on hold) then raised the fault with Openreach again, promising to ‘keep an eye on it all day’. He said he would email me on Friday 30 October or, failing that, on Monday 2 November, to update me on progress.
Openreach were booked in for Monday 2 November and he advised me to make myself available in case they needed to access my property.
Ofcom’s Automatic Compensation Scheme
Ofcom’s Automatic Compensation Scheme has been operational since 1 April 2019. Zen is a member of the scheme, as are BT, Hyperoptic, Sky, Talk Talk, Utility Warehouse and Virgin Media.
Compensation is payable for all residential fixed broadband and landline products.
Ofcom permitted the signatories to withhold compensation temporarily in March 2020, as a consequence of the first Covid-19 lockdown, but most if not all had resumed payments by July 2020, other than in circumstances where engineers’ home visits were prevented by the inhabitants’ self-isolation.
There are three scenarios under which automatic compensation is paid, as a credit on your bill, unless you explicitly agree otherwise with the provider:
- Delays with the start of a new service, with compensation pegged at £5 for each calendar day of delay, including the missed start date;
- Delayed repair following loss of service, with compensation of £8 a day kicking in two full working days after the fault has been reported.
- Missed appointments, with compensation of £25 per occasion that ‘an engineer does not turn up for a scheduled appointment, or it is cancelled with less than 24 hours’ notice’.
According to the full code of practice, published in November 2017, the compensation for missed appointments is only payable where the provider confirms an engineer appointment slot to the customer, and the engineer does not attend that confirmed slot.
I have been disputing this.
Compensation should be paid no later than 30 days after the delayed start of a service or loss of service is resolved, or the service is cancelled, and no later than 30 days after the date of a missed appointment.
Alternative forms of compensation may be awarded, of the same or higher value, as long as the provider states the value of the compensation you would otherwise receive in the form of credit on your bill.
Providers may cap compensation after 60 days, by serving a ‘cease notice’ after 30 days. The provider must then take reasonable steps to provide a suitable alternative service. Automatic compensation continues if they are unable to do so.
I first raised the question of automatic compensation in late October. Initially I believed that I would be eligible under ‘delayed provision’ of a new service, at the rate of £5 per day.
But an adviser subsequently confirmed that, since the service had been live as far as Zen were concerned, £8 per day would be payable from two working days after I had reported the fault, so with effect from 28 October.
I pointed out that Openreach had, at this point, already missed two appointments, entailing further compensation of £25 per appointment, but was told that this applied only if they were appointments specifically to access the customer’s property.
I pointed out that Zen’s website failed to make that distinction. And anyway, Zen advisers had been asking me to make myself available during all the slots I nominated, just in case Openreach needed to come indoors.
I did not know that none of those slots had been confirmed until it was too late to make alternative arrangements.
And keep on messing up…
I received no email from Zen and both the phone and internet remained dead, so I called again on Tuesday 3 November, speaking this time to a third customer services consultant on the technical support desk.
By this stage I was fairly exasperated.
This individual said that he would raise the issue with his fault manager and ‘have a third go at getting Openreach to do their job’.
I reminded him that the fault manager had already been involved and asked if there was any mechanism to escalate the continuing failure to provide a service to a higher level.
He said there wasn’t.
I asked whether, if I lodged a formal complaint with Zen, that would expedite matters. He said it wouldn’t.
I concluded by saying that, as far as I could see, Zen had no mechanism to prevent the same loop of failure from being repeated ad nauseam… He did not demur.
I also added that I was beginning to think I might have been more sensible to have stayed with Virgin… He said I was entitled to my opinion.
That afternoon I received an email signed ‘[X], Technical Support Service Consultant’. (Names have been withheld to protect the individuals concerned.)
‘The fault on your connection was due to get fixed yesterday 02/11/2020 but this was not achieved because more work needs to be done. We sincerely apologise for the delay and will contact you as soon as we have new updates.’
As you can imagine, this non-explanation did not improve my mood!
‘When I spoke earlier today to one of your team I was told that BT Openreach did not fulfill yesterday’s appointment to resolve my fault.
I would like to know:
If they did hold the appointment, exactly what work they undertook; did they send an engineer to inspect the line external to my house?
Since the work must have included a diagnosis of the cause(s) of the fault, exactly what further work have they identified as being necessary?
What is the latest possible date they have given you by which that work will be carried out? If they have not given a date, please request one.’
I never received a response.
And keep on keeping on messing up…
On Friday 6 November there was still no service so I called Zen a fourth time.
This time the adviser I spoke with was rather more helpful.
He established that there was a communication breakdown between the Zen and Openreach automated processes.
For some reason, Openreach’s system remained convinced that action lay with Zen’s provisioning team, continually asserting that ‘the line had not been fully provided’ by Zen, while Zen’s automated system was continually responding that ‘the line had been fully provided’.
This led the Openreach system repeatedly to cancel the engineer appointments set up by Zen.
My adviser again confirmed with Zen’s provisioning team that their action had been completed, so the system fault was definitely with Openreach.
He apologised for the breakdown in communications which he described as ‘unique’.
As we spoke, someone else confirmed to him that Openreach’s system had cancelled my appointment for a third time.
He said escalation to the fault manager would ensure that there would be human communication between Zen and Openreach, and that this would rectify the problem.
I expressed some scepticism, since I understood that previous consultants had already raised the issue with a fault manager, yet with no discernible effect.
Given this, he decided to get approval from his fault manager to deploy a ‘Special Fault Investigator’ (SFI), who would bypass the appointments system entirely.
Unfortunately the fault manager rejected this suggestion on the grounds that were not fully explained but had something to do with the telephone being ‘fine’!
Since this Openreach service is apparently chargeable to the provider, he probably didn’t want to incur the extra cost.
My adviser again asked me to specify slots when I could be available in case the Openreach Engineer needed to access my property. I offered all day Sunday 8 November, plus the mornings of Monday 9 and Tuesday 10 November.
He said he would email me following our conversation to confirm what action he had taken, but his email never materialised.
He said that the timeslot accepted by Openreach would anyway be confirmed to me.
Again I voiced some scepticism, this time that Openreach would fulfil the appointment. He suggested that, because I was suffering ‘total loss of service’ they would not cancel this time round and confirmed that, in such an eventuality, I would receive automatic compensation of £25.
That same afternoon I received a call from another Zen customer service adviser – one of those I’d spoken to earlier, who seemed to have been assigned responsibility for me.
He referred cryptically to ‘some things in the background that didn’t complete’ that he was ‘trying to get closed’. He would need to ‘check back next week’ before the engineer appointment could go ahead.
I pointed out that this would delay the engineer still further. He conceded that Tuesday 10 November was now the earliest the engineer could visit. So he asked me for additional slots and I nominated the afternoons of Thursday 12 and Friday 13 November.
Just to be clear – I was asked to nominate these days in case the engineer needed to visit my property, so I was expected to be present. He confirmed that I would be notified which appointment window would be selected. This was therefore tantamount to a fourth cancellation, though I was notified on this occasion.
Tuesday passed without any communication, as did Thursday, and then Friday. Nothing happens over the weekend.
By Monday 16 November three full weeks had elapsed since I first reported the fault.
How common is this experience?
Ofcom’s most recent annual report: Comparing customer service: mobile, home broadband and landline (September 2020) describes the customer experience in 2019.
In 2019, the headlines were that 87% of new landline and broadband orders were satisfied on the date specified and:
‘Most providers took an average of two days to resolve faults where there was a total loss of service, and the majority of providers were able to resolve nine out of ten of these faults within a week.’
Some 12% of broadband customers had cause to complain to their provider.
Across all providers, approximately 46 faults were reported per 1,000 customers, of which half were found to be the provider’s responsibility, although three-quarters of total loss of service faults were the provider’s responsibility.
Of those repairs requiring an engineer’s visit, 60% took between two and seven days to resolve, 9% took eight to 14 days, 2% took 15 to 21 days and a further 2% took over 21 days.
So I seem to have been unlucky.
The proportion of customers complaining about a repair – if it wasn’t carried out on time or didn’t resolve the problem – doubled, from 3% in 2018 to 6% in 2019.
But only some 1.5% of Openreach engineer appointments for repairs were missed, down from 1.8% in 2018.
The five providers then signed up to the automatic compensation scheme – BT, Sky, Talk Talk, Virgin Media and Zen – paid out over £20.7m in the six month period from July to December 2019.
Almost 600,000 payments were issued, 309,000 for delayed repair and 59,000 for missed appointments. Some £9.7m was paid out for delayed repair and £1.6m for missed appointments.
Ofcom warned that Covid-19 was likely to have affected levels of service in 2020 and, indeed, as noted above, they did temporarily allow providers to remove automatic compensation, though there was no suggestion that compensation would not be payable during the second 2020 lockdown.
Ofcom’s review of the first year of the automatic compensation scheme (2020) points out that:
‘The compensation levels in the scheme are minimum amounts based on estimates of the average harm a customer may experience for each service issue. This means that, in some cases, a customer could experience a greater level of harm from a service issue than they would be compensated for under the scheme and it may be appropriate for a signatory to award the customer additional compensation. Such exceptional circumstances or additional issues may include:
Customers in vulnerable circumstances…it is acceptable for signatories to adopt an individual approach that takes into account vulnerable customers’ specific circumstances;
Where a customer can demonstrate that they experienced losses that would entitle them to receive additional compensation under general consumer law or Ofcom’s General Conditions.’
In December 2019 Ofcom first proposed new compensation arrangements in the event of something going wrong with a switch between internet service providers, as part of its plans to implement an equivalent of the new European Electronic Communications code.
These would include the expectation that customers should ‘receive compensation for each full calendar day after the date of a switch when the switch does not occur on that day’.
Additionally payments would be expected to be ‘proportionate to the length and amount of disruption and inconvenience caused to the customer’.
That consultation was extended and ended on 30 November 2020.
But, on 17 December 2020, Ofcom announced that it would consult again in the New Year ‘on a process for residential customers switching voice and or broadband services’.
At the time of writing, this fresh consultation has still not materialised.
I make a formal complaint
Zen operates a 5-step complaints procedure which I quote verbatim from its website:
- The customer sets out the complaint to a member of staff in the department most relevant to his complaint. An adviser will, if possible, resolve the issue.
- If not, it is escalated to the relevant team leader. If the complaint has been emailed, Zen will ‘aim to respond’ within one working day. The complaint will be investigated and updates will be provided at a frequency agreed with you.
- If you are unsatisfied [sic] with the resolution provided, you can escalate to the relevant department manager, who will respond within one working day. Updates continue to be provided at a frequency you agree;
- If you are still unsatisfied [sic], your complaint can be escalated to the operations manager or financial controller who will respond ‘within three working days of receipt’.
- If the complaint remains unresolved, a complaint can be made to the managing director, who will respond within five working days.
If at any point the customer is not satisfied with progress, he can ask for early referral to the Alternative Dispute Resolution process which brings in an independent arbitrator.
By Monday 16 November, the compensation was really racking up: 19 days at £8 per day is £152, roughly equivalent to the full cost of 3 months of the package I’d purchased.
There had also been three cancellations by BT Openreach, though only one of a specific appointment.
The Zen website said that Ultrafast Fibre (330Mbps) with phone line rental was available for my address on a 24 month contract at £59.99 per month plus a £55 set-up cost. If I continued to pay for the repeater, the additional monthly cost for me would be some £25 per month.
The only way I could see to break the endless cycle of Zen’s and Openreach’s systems not talking to each other was to require an engineer to visit to conduct different work.
So I submitted the following formal complaint to Zen:
‘This is a formal complaint submitted in accordance with Step 1 of Zen’s 5-step complaints procedure.
I ordered an Unlimited Fibre 2 service which Zen confirmed was activated on 13 October. I continued to run out my existing service with Virgin, in accordance with your advice but, when I tried to activate my Zen service on Sunday 25 October, I discovered that I could not access the internet and I had no dialling tone on my landline.
I know that my landline was working as late as Wednesday 22 October, when I received a call. This total loss of service seems to have coincided with the restoration of my original landline number on Thursday 23 October.
I duly reported the fault to your Customer Service Team on Monday 26 October and have made repeated calls to the technical desk since. As of today – Monday 16 November, I still have no service.
One of your advisers has informed me that I qualify under the automatic compensation scheme ‘delayed repair with total loss of service’ provision for a credit of £8 per day, activated two days after the fault was reported. By my calculation the total credit due, as of today, under this provision is £152.
I should also be eligible for an additional credit of £25 each for at least three missed BT Openreach appointments. Although Openreach hasn’t sought access to my home, your advisers have repeatedly asked me to make myself available during the slots I have nominated, in case they need to seek access.
So, by my calculation, I have accumulated credit of £227 to date, and there is no immediate prospect of resolution, as the same cycle has been repeated several times now, with Zen and Openreach seemingly caught in a permanent loop of failure.
So I respectfully propose the following resolution:
– Zen upgrade me immediately to their Ultrafast full fibre package plus phone line, ensuring that an Openreach engineer undertakes the necessary work during a slot of my choosing by 18:00 on Friday 20 November at the latest. The engineer must not depart without assuring himself that both telephone and internet are fully operational.
– Zen foregoes the £55 connection fee; Zen provides the Ultrafast service for the same monthly fee I would have paid for the Unlimited Fibre 2 service – £43 (including repeater), applying my compensation credit to offset part of the balance during the remainder of the 24 month contract. The connection fee plus any remaining shortfall in the monthly fee would be paid by Zen as a goodwill gesture.
I look forward to your immediate agreement. If not, please escalate this complaint in accordance with the timescale set out in your complaints procedure.
That same day – Monday 16 November – I made my now regular call to the technical desk of customer services.
I spoke with the same adviser who had wanted to get ‘some things closed’ that ‘didn’t complete’. It turned out that he’d been off work since then.
On this occasion he made it clear that these things needing ‘closure’ concerned Zen’s provisioning team: clearly we were back to the scenario where flags on that team’s systems needed to be overridden before Openreach would confirm and complete an engineer’s appointment.
It became apparent that they had not acted on his instructions of a week earlier, so Openreach had continued to believe the action was with Zen, so had failed to confirm any of the three appointments.
He said he’d call me back after speaking with the provisioning team. He also acknowledged receipt of my complaint.
He did call back roughly 90 minutes later, having had confirmation from the provisioning team that the ‘open exceptions’ had now been cleared from their system.
When I asked him why the team hadn’t acted on previous instructions, including those he’d given gave a week earlier, he couldn’t explain.
He did say that an e-chat had been arranged with them, but they ‘weren’t able to update’. He had passed through my complaint to them.
He had arranged, once again, for the fault to be escalated to the fault manager, with a recommendation that a Special Fault Investigator be called out to rectify the problem.
I gave him three further slots: Tuesday 17 November afternoon, Thursday 19 November afternoon, Friday 20 November afternoon. He undertook to contact me to confirm one of those.
He confirmed that similar difficulties with communication between Openreach and Zen systems had occurred previously, but he hadn’t seen such an extended ‘disagreement’.
When I asked him his view on the nature of the fault, he said he thought Openreach simply hadn’t made the proper connection in the street box. I explained how infuriating it is to know that there is no substantive fault and yet both companies’ systems prevent it from being rectified.
I confirmed that I would like my complaint to stand: by forcing the BT Openreach engineer out to do something, it might still be useful if the ‘computer says no’ experience continued to repeat itself.
Besides, I considered that Zen owed me more of an apology than the minimum guaranteed under the Automatic Compensation Scheme!
I asked the adviser to stop all direct debits until my system was live. He said he couldn’t do that, but I might be entitled to extra credit for the time I was unable to use the service.
Shortly afterwards I had a call from a different Zen employee. It turned out he was one of the fault managers. He confirmed there was a fault in the cabinet, not in my property and said that it would be resolved within three working days.
He implied that, this time round, I didn’t need to hold slots free for the repair to take place.
One more time round the loop of failure
There were no further developments on Monday. On Tuesday 17 November my per diem compensation ticked over to £160, on Wednesday to £168 and on Thursday to £176.
On the morning of Wednesday 18 November I received a first response to my formal complaint which said that automatic compensation would not be processed until my fault was rectified, and any upgrade should also be delayed until then ‘as this could cause further issues that we wish to avoid for you’.
I sent my response on Thursday morning:
‘I have submitted this formal complaint in accordance with your published complaints procedure. I’m not sure if you are ‘the relevant department’s team leader’. If not, I request escalation to step 2 of your procedure. If you are, I request escalation to step 3.
May I remind you that, in either case, the next response is due within one working day – so by this time tomorrow morning.
May I also remind you that I have requested daily email updates on the resolution of my complaint, in accordance with your published procedure.
My last communication with Zen was with someone called [ x ] who informed me on Monday 16 November at 12:57 that there is a fault in the street cabinet and that it would be resolved within three working days. As of now I still have no service and that period expires at 12:57 this morning. [I should have said ‘afternoon’].
My immediate priority is to have my service restored with immediate effect. However, I have also asked you to confirm the amount I am due under the automatic compensation scheme and have disputed your claim that, in addition to the per diem rate of £8, compensation for several missed appointments is not payable. I wish this matter to be treated as part of my complaint.
I have also requested that Zen upgrade my service as a goodwill gesture, using my credit under the compensation scheme to offset against the additional cost, but meeting the remainder of the cost themselves for the duration of the contract. I consider this adequate recompense for the inconvenience and expense you have caused me, and likely to be sufficient to convince Ofcom that your customer service is as good as you think it is. Please treat this matter too as integral to my complaint.
I would also like assurances that you have revised your systems to ensure that this kind of problem never arises again. It is infuriating to have had to battle the ‘computer says no’ mentality of yourselves and BT Openreach for over three weeks now, when we all three suspect that the fault itself is exceedingly minor.
I look forward to your superior’s reply by this time tomorrow morning.’
There was no response by the morning of Friday 20 November and, more importantly, no internet or landline service.
The per diem compensation clock had now ticked over to £184.
Cue my regular phone call to customer services technical support.
I established that Openreach had once again failed to carry out the repair. The fault manager, had ‘escalated’ the case to an Openreach manager on Wednesday 18 November but, as of Friday, there had been no response.
The adviser I spoke with refused to transfer me directly to the fault manager in question.
I requested that he phone me urgently and by no later than close that day with an update and warned that I was now seriously pissed off.
If he did not reach me, I would be ‘volcanic’ by Monday morning.
He did call a couple of hours later, and it soon became clear that, despite the human conversations that had allegedly already taken place between Zen and Openreach, the ‘computer says no’ problem was still unresolved.
According to his testimony, the ‘circuit reference number’ was not being recognised by Openreach’s systems, which therefore refused to believe that my internet service existed.
But ‘hang on’, I said, doubting my own sanity, ‘you and I both know that I have purchased that service from Zen, a well-known internet service provider, so therefore it must exist’.
Computer still said no, apparently. This was precisely the same problem repeating itself, over and over again, and Zen seemed absolutely powerless to prevent it.
He hypothesised that perhaps an administrative mistake had occurred while porting my telephone number from Virgin.
At one point he insisted that an Openreach engineer had already visited the street box to resolve the connection issue, but the administrative issue was still somehow preventing the fault from being raised.
Here I lost him completely since, if the fault had been rectified, why did a fault still have to be raised? And how was that fault raised if a fault could not be raised?
He said that a member of their provisioning team would speak to Openreach and update me later in the day. Their action was needed before he could raise the fault!
By close on Friday, no-one from provisioning had contacted me, but around 19:30 I did receive another response to my formal complaint, this one signed by the technical support team leader.
It requested that:
‘…you allow us until Monday to come back to you with a full review as we have actions open at the moment on your case from other departments that don’t operate over the weekend so I’m unable to progress this any further at the moment.’
I replied within the hour, to say I would give him until close on Monday but, if the issue was not resolved by then, I would want my complaint escalated immediately to the relevant department manager, in accordance with the complaints procedure.
I reiterated my bemusement at what the fault manager had told me earlier – especially about Openreach systems refusing to recognise my internet service.
Especially since an Openreach engineer had called to check my phone lines and the service must then have been connected in the street box to enable Zen to declare it live, as they had done at least a week before the service failed.
Some progress at last
By Monday 23 November, the per diem compensation tally had reached £208. I decided to keep the pressure on by phoning the helpline, not least to discover what had happened to the promised call from the provisioning team which hadn’t materialised on Friday afternoon.
I spoke with a new technical adviser. It took him some time to read through the case notes. However, he finally confirmed that I would receive an upgrade to Ultrafast Broadband.
They were, however, still trying to establish contact with the ORDI (Openreach District Investigator?) to try to establish why Openreach were not recognising the line. Only then could they close the fault.
It would then be necessary to agree a date for the Openreach engineer to undertake the installation.
We left it that the team leader would call me after 15:30.
He began by saying that Zen’s provisioning team were completely stumped – they simply couldn’t figure out what had been causing Openreach systems not to recognise an internet service when they, Zen, had evidently set one up. He had been working with Zen for seven years and never seen such an occurrence before.
Their proposed solution was to ‘write off’ the service and order a brand new service instead. There was spare capacity in the Openreach street box to accommodate this.
Broadband would be established first, then a telephone line which would have a different number before my old number was transferred across – so essentially a repetition of the process I had been through before.
This would normally take approximately two weeks, but the provisioning manager would expedite matters. After placing the order it would take 24 hours to get an installation date but this could then be brought forward.
He couldn’t guarantee it but he hoped it would be possible to have my service operational by the end of the week. The engineers would not need access to my property.
I asked about the upgrade to Ultrafast and it turned out that the adviser I had spoken to earlier had been over-promising.
Zen were prepared to write off the set-up cost and give me the first month free, but would not meet the balance of the monthly fee once the compensation had been offset.
The manager said that this was because the funding for compensation came from Openreach rather than Zen.
We discussed the possible upgrade and, on balance, I decided not to press the point. The service available to me turned out to be G-fast, which still relied on the phone line – if it had been fibre to the premises (FTTP), that would have swayed me.
He said he would update me on Tuesday once he had spoken with the provisioning team leader.
I expressed concern that, unless they performed some diagnostics, the same problem might reoccur for other customers, but he didn’t seem keen to pursue that line.
The endgame, for broadband at least…
My daily calls duly came.
On Tuesday 24 November I was advised that Zen had ordered the new line and on Wednesday 25th I had a text from Openreach to say an engineer would be arriving at my property the following morning.
On Wednesday afternoon Zen called me to say the phone line would hopefully be established on Thursday, leading to internet connection, possibly as early as Friday but more likely by the following Monday.
The Openreach engineer duly arrived at the very beginning of his 08:00 to 13:00 slot. He told me he was down from the North working for a few weeks because Openreach locally ‘weren’t doing underground work’.
It soon became apparent that he was only interested in my old British Telecom socket, whereas the previous engineer had completely ignored that, testing only my Telewest main and extension sockets.
He had deflected my questions about that, assuring me that it was simply a matter of making the necessary connections in the street box and that would be done by his colleague the very same day.
I began to suspect that he had mistaken those Telewest sockets for Telecom sockets, in which case the line would have failed anyway when Virgin switched off their service on 28 October.
Presumably that helps to explain how I found myself in the situation of both having a service (according to Zen) and not having a service (according to Openreach)!
However, it remains unclear to me why the Virgin line failed a few days before that deadline, apparently when I was transferred back to my old telephone number.
The new engineer initially received a signal that the old Telecom line was disconnected but available 32 metres away!
Then, to his relief, he traced it to the grid in the pavement just outside my neighbour’s house, perhaps eight metres from the front door.
He did some work there and then disappeared in the direction of the street box further down the road. About an hour later he was back. He put a new front on the BT socket and plugged in the phone and router.
The phone line worked straight away; internet only intermittently, though I managed to set up the router and repeater and correct my Hive thermostat to the correct time.
I asked him about himself.
He came from Lancaster and had been touring parts of the South East doing the more complex Openreach engineering jobs. He had been in Essex and St Albans recently.
He said a lot of the local Openreach engineers were new and inexperienced and few were capable of ‘underground work’.
When I asked him about the previous engineer possibly mistaking my Telewest boxes for BT, he could only suggest inexperience was to blame.
Later in the afternoon I had my daily call from Zen and gave them a potted history of what had happened. I was advised that another engineer would be needed to set up the broadband. It was conceivable this might happen on Friday but Monday was now more likely.
Then they had to transfer the phone line to my previous number, which had appeared to cause the problems last time.
Needless to say, it didn’t happen on Friday. But then nor did it happen on Monday. I received my daily call around three in the afternoon and my caller offered me first the good news that my new line was being recognised by Openreach’s systems.
But he immediately balanced that with the bad news that a fault was still outstanding, preventing the broadband connection – something to do with ‘jumpering in the PCP’.
As far as I can establish, that merely means the connection between the fibre line and the copper wire coming into my property in the street cabinet.
He said Zen had no facility to expedite this repair – the standard three working day call-out for Openreach engineers applied.
I resigned myself to wait a further three days and suggested my daily call might be dispensed with until Thursday, other than in the unlikely event that the engineer made the connection beforehand.
This was Monday 30 November, my 33rd day of automatic compensation. By Thursday I would be on my 36th day and would have banked credit of £280.
But, surprise surprise, a BT Openreach engineer texted on Tuesday morning to say he would be on the job shortly and, by 09:50 he’d called to say the broadband was working.
Later that morning my Zen contact called. He said the speed was showing up as 79Mbps, close to the maximum anticipated for my address.
He proposed that we wait for the connection to be established for 24 hours before porting back to my previous phone number – what had apparently sparked the problem last time round.
So I was finally reconnected having survived a total of 33 days without broadband, much of it coinciding with the second national lockdown.
On Tuesday 1 December I had a text from Virgin, offering to send someone to pick up their equipment on Friday 4th December.
I confirmed I would be available and dutifully boxed and bagged everything up, only to receive another text saying they couldn’t come after all.
I couldn’t resist replying:
‘unreliable to the end!’
I’ve heard nothing further from them, but their equipment is waiting for them to reappear.
I have finally received reimbursement for overpayment on my last Virgin bill – but in the inconvenient form of a cheque rather than a bank transfer.
But what about my telephone number?
Also on 1 December I took another call from Zen – provisioning had been instructed to restore my old phone number but this might take up to 10 working days. By my reckoning, that gave them until Tuesday 15 December.
They called again on 18 December to say there was an issue with returning to my original phone number. Apparently the number hadn’t been released by Virgin (although Zen had told me that it had been released and, indeed, restored to me several weeks earlier).
This meant that resolution would be further delayed, until 31 December.
On Thursday 24 December I received an email from Zen reporting that the issue had been escalated by the author, who had been advised:
‘That, whilst it is an existing number and it has been ported over for our use, we have not been able to place the renumber as the records do not allow that.
As a method to fix that I will place a working line takeover for [your number] and once the line is with Zen than [sic] I can do the renumber.’
On Tuesday 29 December another email:
‘The line renumber has still not taken place as there appears to be a records issue.’
On Wednesday 6 January yet another:
‘The issues with having your line renumbered are still ongoing I’m afraid.
I have raised this as a new support case with the Openreach Helpdesk and hope to receive an update over the next 24-48 hours.’
On Friday 8 January still another:
‘Openreach have provided the following update – Your case has been passed to our second line support teams for further investigation.’
On Thursday 14 January:
‘My escalation with Openreach has been accepted and a case handler has been assigned.’
On Friday 15 January:
‘The latest update I have received from the escalations case handler at Openreach is:
‘Apologies for the delay, it looks like the ASD have not dealt with your response!
I have updated the case and passed it back to our Data Integrity team to provide a valid response.’
On Monday 18 January:
‘The latest update I have received from Openreach explains that the number we are wanting to retain has been stopped however the records have not been updated to show the number as being spare, which is what is causing the issues when we are attempting to place our renumber order.
Openreach have completed the necessary form to have the number marked as spare and once this has been done we should be able to resubmit our renumber order.’
On Thursday 21 January:
‘Unfortunately the request submitted by Openreach to mark this number as spare hasn’t worked. The escalations team have raised it back to their ASD team and will update me again on Monday 25/1.’
Today, at last:
Good news. Openreach have now confirmed that the number…does now show to be spare which means we can proceed with our renumber request.
The renumber order has been submitted today and should be completed by the end of the day tomorrow.’
It is now exactly three months on from the date when Zen first informed me that this process had been completed successfully the first time round.
It seems we have been waiting on nothing but the simplest administrative process.
Zen will not confirm the compensation I will receive until my case is closed, so I am presently paying the entirety of my monthly bill for a partial service.
I’m not sure this is quite in line with Ofcom’s code of practice, but still.
I fully expect they will aim to limit their compensation to the £264 (33 days with ‘total loss of service’ at £8 per diem) I am owed under the strict terms of the Ofcom compensation scheme.
Openreach will not stump up any more than that, and I am likely to be waiting in vain for any substantive goodwill gesture from Zen.
The compensation will at least pay the full cost of Zen’s service over six months or so.
But I have already paid out roughly half that sum to cover the additional data costs I incurred while using my phone as a broadband substitute.
And the level of compensation feels completely inadequate when set against the disruption, stress and inconvenience I have been caused – most of it, to be fair, much more attributable to Openreach than Zen, which has been forced to cover for the former’s ineptitude.
If I were to charge for the time I have spent on the phone trying to resolve these issues, my bill would easily add a nought to the sum I anticipate receiving.
It seems to me that the problems I’ve encountered are in large part attributable to excessive over-reliance on automated communication systems between the two organisations: too often there has been no obvious mechanism for human problem-solving to shortcut those systems when atypical or unusual circumstances arise.
If I were Zen or Openreach, I would review those systems thoroughly to ensure that thorough human checks are built back in. That will cost more, but it will be money well spent.
I’m completely satisfied with Zen’s broadband service since it has worked and, as I’ve said, I barely use my landline any more. Zen’s customer service has been mostly strong throughout this saga, even though it has taken their teams far too long to resolve the issues I have presented them with.
It is a relief no longer to be paying Virgin way over the odds for a substandard service, but I could wish that the transition to Zen had been far quicker and far, far smoother.
I shall draw Ofcom’s attention to this unfortunate episode, in the hope that it will encourage them to introduce a far more robust compensation scheme at the earliest possible opportunity.