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The Mysterious Case of BT’s “Borrowed” Copper Broadband Lines

Saturday, Mar 29th, 2014 (1:25 am) - Score 6,560

The Business Development Manager for UK ISP Andrews and Arnold (AAISP), Alex Bloor, has lifted the lid on the occurrence of “borrowed” copper pairs, where an already active broadband or phone line is disrupted by a telecoms engineer (e.g. a BTOpenreach contractor like Kelly Communications) who incorrectly takes over the line for use elsewhere.

Openreach engineers will often need to find a spare copper pair (i.e. the wires that link the customer’s own master phone socket back to the exchange / street cabinet) when fixing or installing a new telephone and or broadband line.

The problem, according to Alex, is that some engineers don’t always appear to conduct a proper check and amazingly this can result in active customer lines being repurposed for other end-users.

Alex Bloor said:

Put simply – and it isn’t just me that thinks this – [Kelly Communications] have a dreadful reputation in the industry. In our support department, scarcely a week goes by without several cases of lines mysteriously going down, only to later discover that an OpenReach engineer or a contractor to BT (such as Kelly) has “borrowed” our customer’s copper pair.

This borrowing activity obviously kills our customer’s line – both for PSTN and ADSL/FTTC. It is then our problem to get a fault logged and an appointment booked. It is inconvenient and loss making for us to deal with. It is inconvenient for the customer.”

According to AAISPs boss, Adrian Kennard, when the system is working properly then the engineer will run through a process of checking the records to see which of the pairs in each cable / cabinet are free, allocating one, and using that pair (they are all numbered or colour coded).

Adrian Kennard, AAISP’s MD, added:

However, there is another way, and this seems to be done quite often – instead of checking the records, the engineer simply connects a test telephone to pairs looking for one that he can use. If he finds a pair that is not in use, then he acquires it for the install, and updates the records to say he has done it (actually, we are assuming this latter step is done!).

How does he find a pair – well for a start he’ll look for “no dial tone”. Unfortunately this means any line used for something other than normal telephone service can get nicked. We have seen this on SDSL lines that have no dial tone. To avoid this, when we install lines “just for broadband use” we do set them up to have a dial tone, and even allow free calls to be made. That helped a lot in avoiding pairs going missing.

However, it is often the case that all pairs have dial tone, but some of the lines may be “stopped lines”. I.e. lines that have had service stopped for now, and someone may want to order service later and reconnect. While stopped they are allowed to be used for a new installation.”

We’ve heard about issues like this happening in the past but had assumed that they were incredibly rare and indeed AAISP’s boss was keen to stress that they “don’t know how widespread” the issue really is, although they are trying to find out and “arrange meetings with Kelly and BT plc trading as Openreach to get to the bottom of it and get things changed.”

Indeed if it was a prevalent problem then we’d see it happening a lot more often through customer feedback, thus we’re inclined to keep viewing it as being very uncommon. But most of the time an ISP won’t know for certain if a problem has been caused by this specific issue or not, which means that related errors could easily go unnoticed (i.e. not be attributed to the correct cause). The issue, for the most part, also appears to be focused more on the conduct of Kelly’s contractors than Openreach’s own engineers.

A Spokesperson for Openreach told ISPreview.co.uk:

Openreach is fully focused on connecting new customers and helping restore service to those experiencing a fault. We do not condone impacting one customer’s service to restore another’s and we take such allegations very seriously.

We would encourage anybody with any evidence of this activity to report it to Openreach immediately and we will investigate.”

Adrian Kennard also claims that some engineers even “use a chargeable call to 123 (speaking clock) to test if the line is active or not – costing each customer 31p until they find a line they think is stopped and they can use“, which could be “a breach of section 125 of the comms act as they are clearly not intending to pay for that call“.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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