BT and the largest UK Internet failure?

Yesterday, 2 February 2016, a large proportion of UK businesses and homes were disconnected from the Internet for much of the afternoon.

Although no one seems prepared to offer an actual figure, according to the BBC’s report this outage affected “several hundred thousand” across the whole of the UK. At its peak, Down Detector, which will have measured only a small proportion of those affected, recorded over 18,000 disconnections. Many of those were not restored for four hours or longer, and the following day there are continuing reports of large numbers either still or freshly disconnected.

The outage started at around 1430, and was confined to customers of the UK’s major ISP, BT, which provides phone/broadband services to 18 million customers and business premises in the country. Internet connections dropped, were restored briefly, dropped again, and in many places continued with only brief periods of connectivity until as late as 2100 or 2200. Only at 2300 did BT claim that its services had been “fully restored”, but by 0530 on 3 February it was admitting to many more ongoing problems.

For part of the outage, BT’s website was also down, so even if customers were able to use mobile broadband to try to connect to it, they were unable to see any service status information. The only accessible information for many was via Twitter, either in the brief periods when parts of the network came back up, or through another ISP. Some customers were also unable to contact BT by telephone, presumably because of the unprecedented number of incoming calls to its service centres.

The BBC reports that BT has blamed “a faulty router” for the problem. If that is accurate, it is a startling example of the impact of a single point of failure. How any major ISP can be so dependent on any single item of equipment defies belief, although it would bear out the pervasive criticisms of BT underinvesting and providing poor quality service.

Inevitably finding anything out from BT’s own website is well nigh impossible. Wading through pages of national news, technology news, and its own press releases about international soccer stars, BT itself seems to prefer to pretend that nothing happened.

Although allegedly tightly regulated, UK ISPs do not provide quality of service information, and major outages like this are not investigated by the regulator, despite having had substantial impact on a very large number of UK businesses and workers. BT has recently been given approval to purchase the largest UK mobile service provider EE, a move which ensures that its corporate neglect of good service will extend to another 28 million mobile customers.

If there is one company which demonstrates the utter failure of government regulation and regulators to make them more answerable to their customers, it is BT.