SFI: Special Faults Investigation engineers
Special Faults Investigation is a term that used to be used for a higher level of faults engineers within BT that would be called in where there was a difficult problem that normal engineers could not handle. They usually have experts in various aspects of BT's systems and could spend more time working on faults. Even with broadband there were SFI engineers that would, for example, walk around a neighbourhood with radio receivers trying to locate the source of RF interference affecting a broadband line.
Unfortunately SFI means something different now. There are still real SFI engineers as described above, but the term SFI now refers to a new type of engineer for fixing broadband faults.
Why is BT SFI a broken concept?
The best way to explain this is an analogy. Imagine you rent a tumble drier (or if you prefer consider you bought it and it is under warranty). If it breaks a person comes out and fixes it - no charge. Simple.
Now, it would not be that unreasonable for them to say "If we come out and find the tumble drier is fine but the problem was in fact a fault in your washing machine, say not spinning the water out, which is why the tumble drier could not work, we'll charge a callout fee". That would not be too bad, though £160 would be a huge call out fee.
Now imagine they say "There is no call out fee, but the service company we use (part of our company) only offer us combined washing machine and tumble drier check visits, so that is all we can offer you"... Not too bad, but there is more: "If they don't find a fault then there is a charge of £160 for checking the washing machine - no it's not a call out fee, it's specifically for the work done on the washing machine". And no amount of "I did not get the washing machine from you, I don't want it checked, I just want the tumble drier sorted" helps you.
Well, that is exactly how BT are running SFI. They make SFI a new service which checks wiring and router as well as the broadband service. They have no option for having it without these extra checks. They charge specifically for the activity beyond the NTE (i.e. these extra checks). They only spend 2 hours on the issue so may well not find an intermittant fault (and so will charge).
How did SFI engineers come about?
It used to be that when a fault was reported BT would do tests at the exchange, and if necessary send an engineer to investigate the wiring and equipment at the exchange and all the way to the customers site. They would diagnose and fix any faults all the way to the network termination point (the socket behind the faceplate on a normal BT master socket), also called the NTE. They would do nothing beyond that point. If the service worked at that point then they are delivering what they have agreed to (and so have we).
Unfortnately there are many faults which come down to customer extension wiring, filters, and routers. The engineer would not touch this, and some customers would be a bit stuck in such cases. Any local electrician can easily sort such wiring and probably charge a reasonable price. There are simple and inexpensive extension wiring kits available from most DIY shops. Filters and routers are easy and relatively inexpensive to replace. So BT testing to the NTE was generally fine.
During 2007 BT proposed a new optional service to ISPs in the ISP forum we attend. The idea was for a new type of engineer that would not stop at the NTE but would be able to diagnose and repair faults in customer wiring - including fitting new filters and cables. The options would still be a little limited (and plans now exist to have engineers that can go as far as configuring routers and windows PCs).
As for costs - there would be a fee (not defined at that stage) if the fault was in the customers wiring or equipment, and no fee if no fault found or it was within BT equipment. This seemed fair enough.
The proposition sounded sensible. It would be a service we could offer to our customers. So everyone agreed with the new idea.
What's the catch?
We did not see the catch until it was too late. For a start the fee was more than any of our customers would be prepared to pay - at £172.80† the cost is more than the cost of a new router, splitters and extension wiring being sent out, even same day in many cases. It is more than the cost of a brand new phone line and broadband being installed. It is, in our opinion, expensive and so it is not a service we want. We will offer it to customers that want to pay for it, but have no expectation of any customers taking this service given the alternatives. But this is fine isn't it? It is a new optional service, right?
There is the second catch, BT stopped sending normal engineers if their tests did not show a fault. They will also not actually test a line at the NTE any more. So the only option for any intermittend fault or where BT don't see the fault is to order an SFI engineer.
The terms were very clear though, BT only charged us if they do maintenance/repair on non-BT equipment beyond the NTE, and we don't want that - we just want the line problem fixed. So there should have been no risk of charges, or so we thought.
We were concerned the BT engineer may do work beyond the NTE, and charge us. So we give the engineer instructions not to on the job and also a recorded delivery formal notice to BT's registered office advising them of this as well. This should mean we never get charged. Sadly BT are now saying that they do not offer such a service - i.e. a service where an engineer will go out and fix a network fault. The only service they offer is one where they can also fix customer equipment and charge. We find this rather crazy, as all we want is a working service at the NTE - that is what we pay for after all! The new BT terms make this no good...
So, if BT will no longer accept orders where we say they must not work on customer equipment, why not simply have no equipment for them to work on? Our standard advice to customers awaiting an SFI engineer visit was to remove all network equipment, wiring, and faceplate and hide it before the engineer arrives. If there is no equipment there then they cannot do any work on it and cannot charge us. This should also stop the engineer carrying out a visual inspection of the customer installation as there will be nothing to see! Again the new terms break this workaround...
Of course there may be cases where extension wiring is attached to the face plate and cannot be removed, or other equipment is on site for another line. This is where we came up with yet another idea. We have formally asked BT to confirm that "a BT engineer will not work on customer owned equipment without their permission". The idea is simple, an engineer cannot legaly work on someone elses kit without their permission. Just to be sure they don't assume they have permission we are supplying nice engraved self adhesive bright yellow stickers to put on the master socket clearly stating the BT engineer has no permission to work on non-BT equipment. Again, new terms break this workaround too.
The latest idea is that BT seem to think (supposedly advised by their legal department) that their terms allow them to charge for Right When Tested. They seem to consider the letter we have sent them to be somehow invalid. They consider that an engineer will do a visual inspection of the customer installation and that constitutes diagnosis which they consider comes under repair activity. Naturally we disagree. So the latest idea is that we advise BT when ordering the engineer "The end user has advised that it is a condition of entry on to the premises that the engineer only carry out repair activity on the BT network up to and including the NTE. BT shall be liable for costs resulting from any damage caused or other activity carried out by the engineer whilst on the premises". In theory, if the engineer goes on to the premises BT are agreeing to these terms, and as such any repair activity that gets an SFI charge is something the customer can then reclaim from BT under those terms. Not yet tested. The new terms may make this not valid either.
The new terms they have now published make a charge for "activity on the customer premises beyond the NTE", which covers just plugging in their test router, so makes the above efforts no good. What we do now, and this often involves over an hour on the phone to BT, is to insist they fix the fault and not sell us a maintenance service (SFI). This is hard work...
BT not following the rules
One of the main reasons we are having problems is that BT were charging for almost all SFI visits. This includes cases where:
- Engineer did not even visit site (but we were able to dispute this case).
- BT confirm engineer did no work beyond NTE but insist charge still applies (most charges were this).
- Fault not found (where no repair or maintenance was done at all).
- Normal engineer visits where BT equipment confirmed a fault and BT requested an engineer, i.e. no SFI engineer was even ordered.
This adds up to a lot of money, so we are disputing charges and making operational procedures to avoid charges being possible. We have come to some compromise with BT to avoid having to go to arbitration, but the details are confidential.
The reaction from BT is very odd indeed. BT make the rules - they define the contract and it was clear they charge when they do maintenance or repair on non-BT equipment beyond the NTE. We have disputed charges where they have come back and said they can confirm no work done beyond the NTE but the charge still stands. They point blank refuse to explain why. They have been asked which section of the price list shows this charge (as the only section we can find is for when work is done) and they ignore us.
One clue that emerged in an ISP forum is that BT Openreach (AKA BT plc) charge BT Wholesale (AKA BT plc) a charge for an SFI engineer if no fault found. i.e if they fail to find a fault in the BT network. BT Wholesale apparently thought they had mirrored those terms in their contract with us. I had to show them their own terms and conditions on the BT web site on my laptop at the forum for them to believe me!
The other interesting response is that BT are claiming that they consider "repair" and "maintenance" of non-BT kit to include "diagnosis". This basically means that if the BT engineer so much as looks at your router then there could be a charge. This is, in our opinion, crazy. We pointed out that whatever their understanding of the words in the price list is they apply equally well to our letter to BT saying not to do maintenance or repair as we copied and pasted from the price list when writing that letter. It was at this point they started with the "that is not a service we offer", to which the reply from us was "well, in that case you might want to stop accepting orders for SFI engineers from us on that basis - up until now you have accepted them on that basis and so no charges apply so far".
Where are we now?
Update, as of Apr 2008. BT have issued the change with proper notice now. However, the big change is that we now have a direct XML SOAP B2B interface to BT for fault reporting. This has been available for a little while now, but is a lot of work to impliment. It has almost made the problems with SFI go away in one go. Basically, even when a fault is clear cut BT and not end user line BT still bounce a fault to an appointment required state. The old system (eCo) would only allow us to make an appointment (and risk SFI charges) or close the fault. One had to spend a long time on the phone, escalating the fault, before getting someone to go past the "SFI is the only service we can offer you" stage and send the fault back for more testing. However, the new XML system allows us to just bounce the fault back to BT with an explanation. The turn around time is also minutes instead of hours. This means we can keep sending the fault back until BT actually read the notes and fix the faults. Obviously there will be occasions where we do need an engineer, and put caveats on the order so as to reduce the chance of a charge. We are still trying to get BT to actually clearly state the clear code as part of the protocol as they have now started charging for clear codes which are not chargable, and getting very confused when we dispute them. But overall we are able to help get customers back on line a lot more quickly now without SFI visits.
Update, as of Feb 2008. BT have changed the terms, though we have yet to find a notice of the change. This change means we cannot safely ever order SFI so we are having to battle on every fault that needs an engineer to get an engineer without us ordering an SFI. This is hard work.
Update, as of Nov 2007. BT want to charge us for right when tested but, in our opinion do not have the contractual framework to do that. We expect contracts to change as a result. However, their argument is that when an engineer finds the line working they do a visual inspection of the customer installation and that counts as repair activity on non-BT network equipment and so if chargeable. It is not yet resolved for existing charges or how it will work in the future. See workaround 4 above.
As at October 2007 the situation is BT have charged lots of SFI charges to us. We have disputed them all as either "engineer did no work beyond NTE", or "work done beyond NTE was against explicit instructions". We have said we don't really care which it is, as either case we don't have to pay. It is in our terms that we can charge our customers for these engineer visits, but we have not done so yet. In future this will probably have to depend on the customer following our instructions carefully as they may not accept orders with "do no work beyond NTE" on them. Apparently BT have had some internal meetings. We think the whole idea of removing all equipment and hiding it from the engineer has fooled them.
Are we being reasonable?
Naturally we think we are. Customer reports a fault to us and we do tests. We have loads of tests we can do because we have spent a lot investing in monitoring systems. We get the customer to do basic tests. If we think there is a fault we report to BT. BT do tests with their expensive test equipment at the exchange, and if they believe there is no fault then they pass back to us. The next step is for us to prove there is a fault, which we now do with a test router we sent to the customer. If that shows a fault we have proved there is a fault. The test router is a BT router purchased from BT and under warranty as well as a BT phone purchased from BT all wired together so the customer cannot have used any of their own wiring or equipment. Having proved it is BT then it should be back to them to fix the fault or somehow prove there is no fault. As our test router can be typically on line for over 8 hours over night with constant bit error rate tests at the ATM level and logging stats such as SNR and sync rate, the BT engineer would have to do a lot more than their 2 hour slot on site to disprove our findings (especially on an intermittent fault). BT used to send an engineer if we said there was a fault. We feel they should continue to do so. SFI was always meant to be an optional extra service so we should not be forced to use it to fix BT network faults. In our opinion, of course.
BT are working on a better SFI service which addresses a lot of the issues. It includes a customer sign off (well, demonstrate working to named end user) which is good. It does not address the underlying issue of why we need to order BTs investigation service in the first place.