Tag Archives: BT

First Steps with Sky Broadband

Over Christmas I was taking a look at Sam Knows the well regarded broadband information site, and I made a bit of a discovery. Up until then I’d all but resigned myself to the fact that we weren’t going to get super fast broadband in Arborfield any time soon. It took a long time for us to get ADSL enabled, and since we’re a pretty small exchange I expected upgrades to 20Meg either from an LLU provider or the BT 21CN programme, and especially FFTC services to be a long way off. However looking at the Sam Knows page for the Arborfield Cross Exchange it turned out there was now an option. There was still no movement from BT who didn’t even list our exchange on either upgrade scheme, but Sky Broadband had LLU enabled the exchange and were now offering an up to 20Meg broadband service. Now they certainly aren’t as well regarded as Zen Internet who I was with, but equally they aren’t regarded as the worst, coming above average in most of the surveys I found. They also now didn’t require you to take a TV service from Sky to take the broadband, and offered a fast, unlimited service for a good price to the competition, and the bottom line was they were the only provider who were either offering, or planning to offer 20Meg service on our exchange.

So I took the decision to switch, and the changeover took place on Thursday.

Up front it’s worth highlighting on of the big points that may be a concern. Whilst other providers may get a bit unhelpful if you use a router other than the one they supply, Sky go a stage further and actually write into the terms and conditions of their service that you must use their router. On the one hand this allows them to provide a much more idiot proof solution in that the router is heavily locked down, to the point that for a lot of users you just need to plug the router into a plug and the phone socket and it will just work. However if you have more complex requirements, for example you need to run a VPN to an office network, or have a more complicated setup it’s a bit of a pain as the supplied router is pretty limited, and the special Sky firmware deliberately removes several of the more advanced features.

In my case it’s more of an annoyance, and I’ve had to do a bit of shuffling around to ensure that the router which on the LAN side is only a 10/100 Ethernet router doesn’t slow down the rest of my network which is almost entirely 10/100/1000 Ethernet. I’ve also discovered that the rebadged Sagem router that Sky supplied goes into a bit of a sulk if it’s not in charge of the DHCP service allocating IP addresses to the other devices on the network. Again it’s not too much of an issue so far, more a hassle having to reconfigure the existing devices on the network to cope.

Whilst it is against the terms and conditions, it’s not impossible to use a third party router on the Sky service. The forums on the Sky User site will point you towards tools to find out what your ADSL password should be, and includes discussions of good alternative routers. However my experience of running for a couple of days with my old router has not been great.

Previously I was using a Draytek Vigor 120 hooked up to the WAN port of an Airport Extreme – which for the BT Wholesale based Zen Internet connection was great. Using it produced a much faster and more stable connection than I ever got with any of the other routers. However having swapped over to Sky the Vigor connected at, and resolutely sat at a 4Meg connection. Looking online at the support forum for the Draytek this is an issue with Sky. Taking a look at the configurations of the Draytek and the supplied router there is another difference. Whereas the Draytek is connecting using PPPoA, that is not what the Sky router is using, instead it is using MER, a new protocol that doesn’t use the traditional username and password, but instead uses the MAC address of the router to validate the connection. Other routers including my Draytek should support the protocol by spoofing the MAC address to make the connection, but a look over at the Sky User forums finds that people can’t get third party routers to work with this protocol. Since under the Sky terms and conditions you shouldn’t be using another company router anyway Sky aren’t much help! Whilst other routers can still connect by falling back to the depreciated PPPoA connection Sky seem to be gradually moving all of their users over to an MER connection.

Within a couple of hours of swapping to the Sky supplied router today, now I had the time to fiddle with the networking connections the speed of the connection started to tick upwards towards the expected 14-16Meg that my line should be able to support, so it does look like there are some compatibility issues with the Sky implementation.

At the moment I don’t have any real need to run a different router, and the network seems pretty stable with the Sky router in place, however I will be keeping an eye out for any details of other routers that may work with the Sky MER implementation.

The Problem with Migrations

Back in the early days of ADSL access to the Internet in the UK, migrating always used to be a pain, and invariably the end user ended up being without their broadband service for a period of time whilst the migration occurred as you waited for the old provider to disconnect you from their service and the new provider to connect – all of which was pretty ironic considering that both providers were just reselling the same product provided by BT Wholesale.

All of that was supposedly solved with the arrival of the Migration Authorisation Code introduced by Ofgem and BT initially as a voluntary process, but made compulsory from February 2007. The process is intended to smooth the transition resulting in a loss of service for at most a few hours. The process is supposed to go as follows:

  1. User obtains MAC code from old provider
  2. User gives MAC code to new provider when opening new account
  3. BT Wholesale make the switch
  4. Old provider closes old account

The whole idea is that the process is supposed to be simple for the consumer, but it doesn’t always work like that.

There are a number of issues with the system, often with obtaining the MAC in the first place, but twice in the last week I’ve come across issues with the process with two totally different providers.

The issue hasn’t been with the physical switches, both of which occurred without a problem, the issue has been with stage four of the process – in both cases the old providers have failed to pick up that the MAC code has been used, and have carried on trying to charge. In both cases the providers in question, O2 and PlusNet have said that the account should close automatically when the code is used, but in both cases they have quite happily carried on charging despite the connections having been swapped – in the case of O2 almost three months previously.

The problem seems to be a disconnect between the accounting systems and the physical systems. In the case of O2 I had already discovered that O2 didn’t bother to take most of the information that BT Wholesale provide to resellers – indeed it was one of the reasons I terminated the account. With my current connection from Zen Internet I can see all of the line status information from their customer portal, including details of the current line speed, dates and times the line speed changed and so on, and their helpdesk can see when the router was connected and when it was disconnecting. The O2 team had nothing, certainly not the BT Wholesale information, and not even basic connection information – the most they could see was that the router was currently connected – their suggested strategy was to watch the lights on the router to see whether the line was staying connected. The lack of information seems to follow through to their account system as well – whilst BT Wholesale have available details of MAC codes being used, it is incumbent on the provider to actually look at the information. When I phoned up about the account problem and spoke to someone in O2 billing, he all but admitted that they didn’t check anything like that and that I should have been advised to phone up and chase up the transfer after it had been made. The one consolation with the O2 problem is that whilst I had multiple phone calls, and a lot of time spent on hold trying to get to the right team to sort it out, they at least have a freephone number on which to call.

Today I found we had the same problem with the Church broadband account, which again we recently switched. The process went through smoothly, but PlusNet have failed to pick up on the change and are charging anyway. It is somewhat more of a pain to sort out as their billing system has already raised a direct debit instruction and they cannot retract it, but again the point remains that the PlusNet systems are not using the available information about the use of the MAC code, and it seems to be incumbent on the end user to chase up. The downside here is that PlusNet use an 0845 number, and with their high volume of calls at least two-thirds of the call was spent on hold.

Both O2 and PlusNet are large ISP’s, with generally good reputations, but both seem incapable of completing what should be a relatively straightforward task of transferring a user under the industry agreed process. Having been bounced around by both their customer service teams I am left wondering whether I’ve just hit bad luck, or whether everybody else has different expectations of good customer service. If that is the case I’m left wondering what one of the providers with poorly rated customer service would do!

The lesson from these cases of course is once you’ve completed a migration, always phone up your old provider and tell them, because it does seem that these two at least can’t really be bothered to check the BT Wholesale information themselves.

Communication Difficulties

Apologies if you’re trying to get in contact via e-mail with either myself or Beth over the next few days. Since Monday night our previously pretty well rock solid ADSL connection hasn’t been able to maintain a connection for more than about a minute before losing synchronisation and reconnecting, as a result doing pretty much anything on the internet is a bit of a pain at the moment.

Zen, our ISP were pretty helpful, and on my first serious use of their technical support since moving to them five years ago I was very impressed. Rather than the expected series of “have you plugged it in?” type questions, the engineer immediately gave me the information I needed to know, which was details of what their system at the other end of the line was saying about the connection. There was also no argument about performing an additional series of line checks. Unfortunately those showed up no problems with the line, so I was advised to do a more detailed series of checks on the router and the connection.

Router wise I’m running the latest firmware, and even after a factory reset it is still failing to hold a connection for much more than a minute. From there I’ve tried it in an alternative phone socket, and tried disconnecting some of the other devices. One suggestion is to try an alternative router, so after the discussions about issues with AR7 chipset routers, of which mine is one (see this PC Pro article), I’ve ordered one of the non-AR7 chipset routers that Zen recommend.

Unfortunately if that doesn’t solve the problem then I’m going to need to get to our BT master socket, which is hidden away behind our sideboard, as often BT will only look at the line once all other possible sources of interference have been excluded. They do that by having you plug the router directly into the test socket located behind the master socket faceplate. In this way they can exclude any extension wiring issues from the problem.

As with most problems like this, with a multitude of things that could go wrong, and several different organisations responsible for different parts of the connection, trying to nail down exactly what changed on Monday night to cause our connection problems really does end up being a pretty tedious process.

Update: Hooking the router up to the test socket produced exactly the same problem, so on the phone to Zen we went through the connection statistics the router was reporting and compared them to what they were seeing – the stand out oddity was the SNR figures – signal to noise ratio – which were radically different at our end from what Zen were seeing. We were getting 6/22, they were reporting 22/365! This was enough to be able to report the problem to BT, who picked up the problem this morning.

BT spent all of twenty minutes on the problem, and basically turned on interleaving. What this did was sort out the problem when the router was plugged into the test socket – their yardstick for a working line, but the router was still unusable when plugged into the master socket. Unfortunately, BT were going to do no more, so I resigned myself to having to rearrange the wiring in the house to filter the ADSL signal at the test socket. But then when I got home, looking at the router logs it had dropped and reconnected about fifteen minutes before I got home. The speed was a lot less – about half of what I would usually expect, but the SNR had changed to 9/22. I tried the router plugged into the master socket and it worked, then I moved the router back to the original location on the end of an extension, and again it worked. Indeed there is nothing different in the setup now than with the way it was on Monday before it failed. Fingers crossed there was some sort of external interference which has now gone, and hopefully we won’t get any more problems.

One final note, this is the first time I’ve had to make serious recourse to Zen technical support, and without fail, all the engineers I have spoken to have been helpful and knowledgeable, and at no time have I felt that I’m fighting them to get what I need to solve the problem. A totally different experience from what other people seem to find with their ISP customer support.