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Bonkers Blog January 2018

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15 January (Part 2) - As it turned out, it was rocket science

Have you noticed how many times my MP’s name has been mentioned this month?

Accompanying me to various meetings with the police over the Craske business and making her Portcullis House office available to me.

She quietly sent a letter of support to Kent Police, I only found out from them. She didn’t tell me she had done it and I don’t know what she said. And then she offered to do my shopping when the flu was at its worst.

Considering how far to the right I am of her politically I think that is all rather remarkable. Teresa says it is not.

And now I am going to tell you about something else Teresa Peace has done for me and quite likely everyone else in the Thamesmead and Abbey Wood area over the past few months. She modestly says she didn’t do anything that a good MP would not do and maybe so but she willingly did it and kept at it when things weren’t going as well as I had hoped.

It needs quite a lot of background explanation, sorry about that.

Thamesmead exchangeI used to spend every day inside telephone exchanges. It was a long time ago. The most modern of them could signal the caller’s number to the operator - remember them? Operators no longer needed to ask "Number please" and be subject to the inevitable cheating caller; there was no easy check.

So I became an enthusiast for what we now call Caller Display. (CLID). The moment it became available to the public I was off down the BT Shop - remember them too? - to buy a new telephone and pay my £1.75 a month service charge.

I soon noticed it didn’t always work properly. I made careful notes and came to the conclusion that the failures were dependent on which route the originating call took. Off peak the CLID might work but at busy times it did not.

This was all 20 years ago when BT offered an accessible customer service so I was eventually able to pull a few strings and get to talk to an engineer who knew what I was talking about. Together we worked out that some of the incoming digital switches in the Thamesmead exchange had a bit set back to front. It reversed the effect of the 141 code which toggles the WITHHELD flag.

A number of incorrectly set switches were put right and the problem went away.

In October 2014 it came back again with a vengeance. Around 50% of my calls were showing WITHHELD when they shouldn’t. I reported it to BT.

They said they knew about it and it occurred when the call originated on a small rural exchange which had been recently upgraded for fibre broadband. Dependent on which manufacturer’s equipment had been installed there was a software conflict with CLID. Give them a few months they said and they would fix it.

Fair enough and as it happened all of my regular out of London callers were on such exchanges. About six months later BT remembered me and called to say they had fixed the problem.

Except that they hadn’t. The problem was as bad as it ever was.

I started to keep notes again. I came to the conclusion that calls from London and the other big cities never failed to display correctly. The same went for those in the Outer London area such Erith and Orpington and all mobile numbers. It was just most or all numbers that began 01 which corrupted the CLID data.

I told BT but they told me I was nuts and by 2015 my knowledge of telephony was hopelessly out of date. Worse was that BT had closed down all public access to people who knew their arse from their elbow. The best they offer now is someone reading from a script in a Call Centre.

Every few months I would write in again and always be ignored, even when to the Chairman’s Office. Nearly 50% of my incoming calls from 01 numbers gave bad CLID data. Naturally I had checked with a phone plugged into the master test socket, changed the phone and - don’t tell everyone - I have two landlines, and they were both affected.

Eventually it occurred to me that if my old theory about peak time alternative routing was correct then everyone served by the Thamesmead exchange would be affected so I explained my theory to Teresa Pearce on 12th August 2017.

She immediately saw the point I was making, BT might be sending bad CLID data to most of her constituents. She wrote to BT’s Chairman on my behalf.

A week or so later a lady called me from the Chairman’s Office to say I was talking rot. CLID was one of those things that either worked or did not and it was wholly dependent on the caller and their use of the 141 code. My friends and relations were all pranking me by using 141. Yes she actually said that!

Three years previously BT had told me that CLID was software and who knows of any complex software that is perfect?

The lady and I ‘had words’ but she told me I couldn’t complain further because she was the Chairman’s Office and there was nowhere else to go. I said there was always OFCOM and Teresa offered to help again.

Things then began to move forward. For the past three months or so I have had to log all my incoming calls by time and number and report to BT every two days which was a bit of a pain. However I was assured the data was being studied by a specialist team which was tinkering with the software.

We went through phases when things became far worse with London numbers and mobiles failing to display. Even BT’s own headquarters on one occasion but by mid December BT was suggesting they may have cracked the software problem and since then there have been no failures.

Today the Chairman’s Office lady called again somewhat contritely. She said that my theory about peak time routing was absolutely right and it became hugely complicated but the development team was very grateful for my persistence.

"Was the whole of the Thamesmead exchange affected" I asked. "Yes" the lady said. "The whole country?" "Not sure, it was all well beyond my comprehension."

But at least everyone connected to the Thamesmead exchange should now be able to rely on CLID although the BT lady was now at pains to point out that no software is 100% reliable. Not what she was saying back in August.

And you have Teresa Pearce to thank for that, I could not have done it without her.


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