How to ensure your business never loses its net connection

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Steve Cassidy reveals why businesses can't afford to rely on a single ISP for their internet connectivity

I always get into a bit of a state when clients that I’ve fired get in touch again. It’s a slightly strained atmosphere, since I don’t expect these people want to re-experience the outbreak of temper that typically preceded such a firing, and this means that if they’re calling me again they must be in pretty desperate straits. If they start the call with “Steve! Mate! How are you?” then I know it has to be really bad.

In this case, there had been some kind of problem with the internet connection, the kind of problem that doesn’t just go away after a reboot. They weren’t merely offline, but totally disconnected – their ISP had actively decided to remove service from them. Secretly, while listening to their panicky entreaties pouring out of my phone, I was wondering whether the reason I’d fired them had popped up again during their dealings with the ISP. Once an ISP has fallen out with you, your life can become surprisingly difficult, whether you’re a business or a home user.

Once an ISP has fallen out with you, your life can become surprisingly difficult, whether you’re a business or a home user

As usual, it isn’t any highfalutin or head-banging technical complexity concerning the broadband link that causes the trouble, but the boring, everyday contractual and legal stuff. There are only so many pairs of telephone wires coming into your property from the telephone exchange, and once an ISP with whom you’re (to be polite) in dispute has bought access to your space, via an intermediary such as BT Openreach, the bottom line is that it’s by no means simple to reclaim ownership of that copper pair once an ISP has provided a service over it.

People running smaller ISPs have muttered darkly to me about procedures within our national major carrier, ones that involve print-outs of Excel spreadsheets and yellow highlighter pens, to get a line reassigned while a dispute is outstanding. If your request happens to be on a sheet of paper that’s lost or turned into a paper aeroplane one day, then you’re basically Donald Ducked.

I couldn’t possibly condone the method used by one of my contacts, faced with this very problem while moving clients into new premises recently vacated by a firm that had gone bust owing their ISP a pile of money. He physically ripped out all the recognisable telephone (and hence, also, broadband) wires from the building, right back to where they disappeared into the tarmac at the back of the car park, and then notified the carrier (almost said BT then, tsk tsk!) that “building works associated with the change of tenant” had wiped away all evidence of any preceding service, so could they please just start a fresh order without any history at all?

From a legally fastidious point of view, this could be construed as criminal damage. On the other hand, it did rather neatly sweep away all bureaucratic objections to a simple job of supply, and was an absolutely perfect fit with the simple and unbending job-ordering system that dominates the life of the typical carrier installations engineer. You can’t very well take this approach, though, if the dispute relates to your ongoing business, and you especially can’t do it if the dispute isn’t your fault.

Forgotten bills

Over the past calendar month, I’ve encountered four connections whose ISP (and this wasn’t all one firm, I hasten to add) had simply forgotten altogether to bill monthly for the connection, then turned up just before one of those big annual anniversary dates (three of the four did it the week after Christmas, expecting to be paid before 31 December), demanding a whole year’s connection charges as a lump sum. For whatever bizarre reason, this practice seems to take place more often with the bigger, fatter, business-grade connections – and at least one of the victims was on the hook for the thick end of £50,000.

As the dispute rolled on into January, when at least a few of the decision makers were back at their desks, this ISP slowly revealed that there was effectively nobody empowered to stop the monster that was their credit control and recovery department from swinging into action.

Fortunately, the possibility that this failure to connect might turn into a show-stopping problem had occurred to the management team sometime in the autumn, since their accounting system had flagged up a rising accrual that wasn’t being disbursed in the usual manner, and so they’d done the only sensible thing when faced with this threat (or any other kind) to their connection – they’d ordered themselves an alternate link and some hardware at least minimally capable of using more than one pipeline to the outside world.