BT's Wholesale division was hit by a double whammy today – a critical report from Ofcom and a service support outage

May 23, 2006

4 Min Read
BT Servers Cough While Critics Squawk

The wholesale division of BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) came under fire from two fronts today as it suffered criticism from its carrier customers and was plagued by an IT problem that severely disrupted its online customer support and service portal.

First the carrier criticism. A recent report that surveyed 32 of BT Wholesale's customers conducted for U.K. regulator Ofcom found that BT's 21CN consultation process is leaving other service providers confused rather than enlightened.

BT has made much of its 21CN consultation process, and how it is keeping other carriers in the loop, through a forum called Consult21, about the all-IP network's developments. (See Wales to Get 21CN First.)

"There is a general concern that BT Wholesale’s 21CN consultation programme is not effective," finds the report, which was prepared for Ofcom by Spectrum Strategy Consultants . "CPs [communications providers] feel that they are constantly bombarded with information which is not organised in a way that shows clearly what information is most important, and that many of the issues they raise at industry fora are not acted upon."

The report added: "Many respondents felt that the current 21CN consultation process has led to a flood of information, much of which was irrelevant to them. They felt that establishing an improved, more targeted communication and consultation process was a high priority."

The survey also found that, while BT Wholesale's service delivery for some products, such as voice interconnect, is regarded as good, "there are persistent issues around some services, in particular PPCs [partial private circuits]."

In addition, the survey found that BT's new access division, Openreach, which was created in January this year to alleviate competitive concerns and to avoid the breakup of the carrier by Ofcom, already has a better reputation among competitive service providers. (See BT Opens Up Access and Euro Incumbents Transform.

That's because Openreach is under very close scrutiny and has to meet hundreds of specific "undertakings" agreed upon by BT and Ofcom. And in a separate Ofcom report issued today, focused on BT's implementation of those undertakings, Ofcom noted that "the level of trust in BT Wholesale is lower than that for Openreach, and there is a particular concern over the 21CN consultation process."

But the report also found that "trust within the industry has improved," and an Ofcom spokesman says there has been "good progress in some areas" with regards to BT.

Jacqui Brookes, CEO of the Federation of Communication Services (FCS) , the trade association for communications service providers in the U.K., says BT has been "trying hard." She adds that creating a whole new division with Openreach was "bound to cause some problems -- they have a lot of fires to fight."

A spokeswoman for BT archrival Cable and Wireless plc (NYSE: CWP) is less forgiving, saying the criticisms regarding BT Wholesale in the Ofcom survey report "are representative of what we think," and "that's completely the opposite of what we should be thinking."

In an email response to questions regarding the new reports, BT stated: "This is a constructive report from Ofcom although it should be noted that many of the issues raised in the report have since been addressed. "It is still very early days in implementing what is a massive and radical change in the way the industry and BT operate after more than two decades of regulation. A huge amount has been achieved to date, including the creation of Openreach, a new 30,000 person business. BT has delivered against every single one of its Undertakings to date, and everyone is committed to delivering the remainder."

The report was made public just as server problems are causing significant disruption to BT Wholesale's Website, which is used by competitive carriers to order services, get pricing and support information, and manage their services portfolio. The site, run on Weblogic servers from BEA Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BEAS), was unavailable for much of Monday and Tuesday (as this article was published), with access to the site either very slow and timing out, or simply unavailable.

Customers trying to reach the site are met with a "Weblogic Bridge Message" that reads: "Failure of server APACHE bridge: No backend server available for connection: timed out after 10 seconds or idempotent set to OFF."

It's unclear whether the outage is affecting only the Website and its customer support services and functions, or whether BT Wholesale has more widespread IT problems.

Other BT Websites, including those for Global Services and the new access network division, Openreach, are not affected.

The service interruption is "quite a worry for everybody," according to Jacqui Brookes at FCS. "Our main concern is that it affects the whole industry's reputation," says Brookes, adding that "we have some concerns about BT Wholesale's ability to deliver services to its customers."

BT Wholesale said it is investigating the issue, while BEA had not responded to questions as this article was published.

— Ray Le Maistre, International News Editor, Light Reading

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