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Good Timing! BT Openreach launches charm offensive and recruitment drive - a day before a critical regulator report is published.

birds on a wire

Broo-am (Andy B) (c) (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Tomorrow, Ofcom, the UK's uber-regulator of telecoms and the media, is due to publish a report rumoured to be highly critical of BT's Openreach division. What a surprise and coincidence then that the incumbent British telco should chose today of all days to launch a PR offensive and announce the recruitment of 1,600 new (and much needed) engineers. Unfortunately it's too little and far too late to pacify many angry subscribers.

In its press release BT announces that it "is planning a major recruitment drive across the UK, with 1,600 new engineering jobs being created at Openreach, BT’s local access network business."

Blowing it's own trumpet whilst spinning the news for all it is worth (a difficult task even for the best of hard-boiled, leather-necked, US-trained corporate mental gymnasts) BT adds, "Now Openreach has supplied more than 19 million homes and businesses with fibre broadband, the new recruits will help to bring the technology to even more people."

However, the announcement fails to address the myriad of customer and consumer group complaints about Openreach's often lackadaisical and dilatory attitude to customer relations and its apparent inability to either connect new subscribers or repair faults reported by existing users to any sort of achievable or even comprehensible timetable.

Joe Garner, the CEO of Openreach, says, “Millions of customers depend on broadband and they rely on us to keep them connected, whatever the weather. Our engineers do an incredible job. They have been rolling out fibre broadband faster than anywhere else in the world, and at the same time completing hundreds of thousands of jobs each week to keep people connected throughout the UK – an amazing achievement".

That's his (or at least his PR department's) take. The reality for far too many disgruntled subscribers is rather different. A case in point? One of the TTV staff has recently moved home and has had a hell of a time getting connected to BT broadband: multiple appointments have been missed, engineers have finally arrived with the wrong kit and/or the wrong information about the premises, its connectivity potential, the subscriber and even the correct address of the house. Calls to Openreach have either gone unanswered or have been cut-off midway through conversations by rude and disinterested staff while promised return calls with details of remedial action to be taken have failed to materialise.

OK. this is purely anecdotal but, as a plethora of web sites show, my colleague's experiences are all too commonplace. Openreach has a bad customer rep for good reasons. The fact is that the division has been short-staffed for far too long and senior management were well aware of it. Openreach may well be the victim of its own success but giving itself a public pat on the back for being so great whilst unhappy consumers growl in frustration at PR taking precedence over meaningful action is not the way to pour oil on troubled waters.

All the BT Openreach release says on this subject is, "As more and more people rely on the internet, they have rising expectations of reliability. The new engineers will help Openreach to continue to improve customer service as it strives to install new lines and fix faults more quickly".
You will note that there is no date set by when this will happen. Recruitment and training will take time; the backlog will take even longer to address; things will almost certainly get worse before they get better.

The statement continues, "Openreach has also committed to increase transparency around its customer service performance by promising to publish regular reports on its website from this summer. These reports will show how Openreach is delivering against its service targets." Consumers can actually get a vague and overly technical idea of Openreach's service performance now, but not from BT. The information is available on the website of the Office of the Telecoms Adjudicator - but it takes some finding.

BT's serendipitous announcement is a prime example of 'better-late-than-never and a pledge made too late and immediately before the operator will face regulator criticism and beefed-up sanctions.

At the end of 2013 Ofcom told BT that it was "concerned about how long Openreach is taking to complete repairs and installations". Six months on the situation remains the same and tomorrow the telco will be told that henceforth it must ensure that faults are repaired within two days of their being reported and to install new lines within 12 days of the order being placed. If it fails to meet these targets BT will face increasingly severe financial penalties.

But, and it's a big but, this 'increased transparency' (meaning regular reports showing how well Openreach is doing in meeting its targets) will not kick-in today or tomorrow but at some time later this summer - so we can probably expect an update sometime in late September.

Also conspicuous by its absence is any mention the payment of compensation for those Openreach subscribers who are experiencing delays and obfuscation now or those who, in the future and peering into the entrails of the brave new world of BT transparency, may find that not all repairs are, after all, made on time and that new installations mysteriously miss the target period.

And, of course, Openreach doesn't just fix faults and provide installations for BT itself, it also has wholesale clients. These include the likes of Sky and TalkTalk, both of which have complained about BT's languid attitude towards fulfilling its contractual obligations.

BT has a major task on its hands and, on the plus side, it does expect "a significant number of the engineering roles to be taken up by ex-service men and women". Many experienced signals engineers and technicians have been made redundant from the UK armed forces under the government's ongoing austerity and cuts programme to be replaced by part-time (and cheap) volunteers. Don't panic, it's Dad's Army 21st Century style. Tin cans and lengths of twine will be issued in a national emergency. Keep Calm and Carry On. And what a Carry On it is.

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