uncertainty and doubt (FUD) is a tactic used in sales, marketing, public relations, politics and propaganda.
Some time ago, we were discussing what purpose BT's Vital Vision programme was a) intended to have and b) was having in actuality in changing the mindset of, in Vital Vision's own words, "...some of the UK’s most influential public sector leaders".
As concerns about the reach of this, cough, marketing programme became more public, promotional material about Vital Vision began to vanish off BT sites and the web. As was noted in an exposé of BTs influence on Suffolk County Council
This blog post can be read at 5tth.blogspot.com
Disappearing webpages and content from a company such as BT is in itself odd. (Read more about Vital Vision in BTs own words.)
However, it did seem to achieve the desired effect and shove the issue of BTs influence of local government under the carpet. For the mainstream press. Not for those of us involved in trying to listen to, support and report on this matter of continuing and increasing concern.
The growing weight of evidence is hard to ignore any longer, especially in regional and local government. I apologise for the length of this post but this is only a handful of the examples available to illustrate the issues.
As BT expands beyond being a simple telco /incumbent (obviously no money in such things now,eh?) and begins to offer local government services (e.g. Lancashire County Council and One Connect (BT) are not only partnered for the obvious -ICT and telephony, but One Connect also delivers benefits services (in charge of the crisis benefits system no less), HR, Payroll and multiple other non-telco related services), it does rather beg the question whether BT is being permitted rather too much of a foothold within local government and hence too much say in local policy. And local politics.
After all, HR (to pick one example) is not BTs forte. To such an extent that BT appears to have outsourced its own HR to Accenture since 2000. So, why go there? Ah yes, local government contracts are lucrative, even in times of public sector cuts. Especially when sold with the carrot of savings, particularly in efficiency and workforce. However, one should ask as an aside whether having Social Services, Children's Services and Crisis Benefits for the most needy in our society dictated by a telco's contractual targets rather than the needs of the suffering individual human beings needing services is actually following "the principle of ‘the customer at the heart of everything we do’" as stated in One Connect's first year review first paragraph for LCC.
This pattern of BT having fingers in many local government pies is echoed across the country, and a little research eg of Suffolk for starters, reveals definite unease at possible undue influence (and worse) on senior local govt officers at County level.
From the outside, it does appear, on regular occasions, that County Council employees at all levels are rather too vocal in their public support of BT. Often to the (total) exclusion of local businesses and community projects who may be delivering a superior service to the Council's constituents than that proffered currently, or planned.
Why? Are they being brainwashed by the carefully crafted marketing hype and sales spiel? Is it so difficult to look back less than a decade and question whether what has been delivered to date matches previous, paid for, 'promises'? Or is that all they are told? Is this really a sound basis for well-considered, impartial decision making? Or have these vocal advocates perhaps been Vital Visioned or Common Purposed? (FOIs regarding CP to many Councils are revealing: there is a growing reluctance, shall we say, for councils to answer how many of their employees have been on a Common Purpose course).
From here, we could look at BTs influence on Westminster (which concerns very many people and companies) but let's devolve downwards instead.
As a former Parish Councillor from
a family with over 30 years PC involvement, it always concerns me to hear of parish councils under fire. The job is hard and thankless enough as it is.
A reminder about Parish Councils: "As the lowest tier of democratically elected representatives in the country, parish councils have the mandate to speak on behalf of the people they represent. It is important that parish councils learn how to do this with authority and integrity in order to have the optimum effect."
Over the course of more than a year, evidence has begun to emerge of a number of parish councils and individual Councillors targeted by BT and being put under pressure by BT, which now appears to include threats.
Do any of us need to look at the (all too obvious reasons) for BTs behaviour? Not really. There are far too many column inches and white papers already covering the Whys. It is however worth taking a long hard look at the tactics being deployed. And, worse, the thinly veiled threats being made to PCs and individuals of good standing eg ELECTED Councillors, by BT.
A quick bit of background: for well over a decade, BT has been endeavouring to deliver broadband on the ground. Or into it. That is no secret. 10 years ago ish, with the trigger level campaign highlighting to many, mainly rural areas, that BT was not planning to deliver broadband any time soon to their patch, many set to and embarked on the JFDI DIY path. This, in many instances, upset BT. Publicly voiced support for such initiatives often hid behind the scenes efforts to scupper community plans.
As an example, leased lines needed for community backhaul were delivered late, if at all; trigger levels on tiny non-viable exchanges where community work had begun were magically achieved overnight (on one notable occasion iirc by more people registering than actually lived there!); blanket advertising campaigns offering services which frequently could not physically deliver the services offered (yes, yes, read the small print, thrice, to understand it) appeared on doormats already involved and often committed to local projects; articles appeared in the local and national press attempting to discredit community projects, generally and specifically; and so on. Many of us had inboxes full of requests for help from villages and villagers who were facing what can only be described as bully boy tactics.
And then came that wondrous time where ADSL reached 99% of the country. The job was done. Ministers hailed Britain's success in the global broadband league from the rooftops. Mainstream media proclaimed all was well.
But the facts showed otherwise. As did the growing number of complaints from around the country about what was, loosely, termed "broadband".
The cycle began again. Down the pub, locals discovered their neighbours were in a similar predicament. Again. Fora online began to fill with tales of broadband woe. Again. Communities began to seek solutions. Again. Government realised all was not so rosy and decided, in that inimitable Westminster Village style, to throw an insufficient amount of consideration and money at the problem, and hence only permit at best a quick fix. Again. Which most unsurprisingly did not suit the vast majority of vendors nor, inevitably, the customers across this fair isle. Again.
And so to today. Lengthy, in some cases interminable, discussions ensued at regional level to spend the pot allocated. Many observers, including thousands uninterested in the technology but excited about how it could, finally, improve their lives, began to feel growing disquiet. After all, memories aren't so short. The British population had heard all this before and it was quite clear that little would improve significantly for the very many struggling to exist on so-called 21st century Britain telecommunication provision.
New companies were formed to challenge the duopoly. After all, it was clear and still is that there is a window of opportunity wide open for agile, fast-moving, grow-organically, non-megalomaniac type FTTH (full fat fibre to the home) providers. Especially into rural areas. Projects such as B4RN began to inspire communities and parishes. "Let's JFDI".
You'd think that a handful of community projects looking to connect in the low hundreds of properties each wouldn't bother a behemoth such as BT. But, oh no. For some reason, once again, these projects scare them. Little itty bitty parishes with less than 400 homes are being targeted with increasingly unpleasant letters. In fact, threats. And threats to named Councillors, as well as FUD, as you will see below. To the point where parishes and Councillors have had to seek legal advice to potentially fight BT for so-called wrongdoing.
The crime? Supporting A N Other company or project to deliver broadband. And stating so, publicly. Which, one would think, is referred to as Freedom of Speech. It is also 100% permissible and breaking no laws WHATSOEVER as long as there is a non-pecuniary interest.
Further to this, it seems that anyone who speaks out against, challenges or even waxes satirical about BT is likely to receive a cease and desist letter. Read more on the Superfarce (yep, you read that right!) Cymru affair on
Broken Telephone. (And go look at the Superfarce Cymru site - it will make you smile all day!)
Note: I am redacting names. Whilst I believe this is pointless as BT know damned well who they are writing to, and applying pressure to, the places involved are already inundated with enquiries from others in a similar boat, journalists, campaigners, pro bono lawyers etc. Which, to my mind, reflects how serious, and potentially widespread, this problem is becoming.
Let's start in the deep South. A county with a history of broadband activity. Recently, an article appeared in the local paper in which a Chair of a Parish Council just connected to a "superfast" (only compared to the dial-up level broadband suffered till then) service was extolling the benefits of the county-wide intervention as regards his Parish.
This resulted in an email dialogue from a concerned member of a neighbouring parish asking (and rightly so) which businesses and homes had actually benefited from the rollout as the article had been very non-specific and was mainly comprised of the Parish Chair's gushing praise of BT.
Cue extremely defensive response from the Chair. To wit, he opens with:
"I cannot and will not discuss any individuals' experience of before/after superfast and I will not be drawn into any technical discussion as to whether the approach applied by [the superfast intervention project] is the optimum for any particular part of the County."
Interesting. Why not? It is a fair and polite email request.
The writer of the original email raises very valid issues in his reply:
My concern is that [the superfast intervention project], and it would seem you too, believe it is OK to promote a solution that provides service with a very limited life expectancy to the ‘low hanging fruit’ rather than to support, or fight for, a solution that would bring a upgradeable service to everyone who needed it. I suppose it is a case of only pleasing some of the people some of the time. I note your comment that more than 50% of the Parish can now receive the new service, this is one of the issues I hope to discuss with [person im charge of superfast intervention project] as I am concerned that the percentages being quoted may well be higher than areas such as ****** are actually able to achieve, the 80-90% quoted for [the County] as a whole is also of great concern to me."
Parish Chairmen are, in general and in my experience, folk of strong will, strongly held opinions, and are often a force of nature (you need a bloody thick skin to be one for any length of time) so it comes as no surprise to encounter such a bullish response. In fact, it must make it all the easier to get folks onside for a corporate. But the most telling comment came in the cover note which accompanied these emails:
"A good illustration of how BT/[superfast intervention project] are turning those who should be looking to the future for their communities into supporters of the poor current efforts.
I do despair for [county], with attitudes like this it will continue to be a back water…."
Elsewhere, a parish council member with too many pals involved in the BT/county rollout and a seeming desire for a career move up the local government ladder is deliberately obstructing a community plan. (I can't go into details as I think it would identify the chap involved.) The problem is, everyone locally knows what he is doing and can see the impact this is having on their (his too) neighbours and the project which has been wholeheartedly backed by this community. Come next election, he won't be voted back in. BT won't care that his unstinting, presumably voluntary, support for their profit making has resulted in him being shifted out of his community role. But he might come to realise that his life in this place is a little less comfortable now he has alienated the community he purports to serve in favour of a faceless PLC.
Let's move north a little for the next example.
There is a village in another county who, because of the poverty of their broadband and also because of the lack of confidence in the county plan, have decided to seek an alternative solution. All perfectly permissible in a free market. (And you would think BT would welcome the competition and the County Council would be pleased that further companies are also investing in their region).
A couple of individuals in the village decided to investigate the options, and managed to interest one of the FTTH companies. We all know that for a sustainable FTTH business model to succeed, there is a minimum number of properties required to take the service. No more '10 and you're there' as with our satellite-wifi model of a decade ago. The initial capex and ongoing opex increase the minimum properties to somewhere between 100 and 150 homes.
This village fitted the model, and so work began by the individuals to encourage villagers to register an interest. A thankless task, as we all know, especially when undertaken in your own free time and with your own money. To raise awareness the village website, whose annual costs are covered by the Parish Council, added a broadband page to give full and factual details of what was on offer. And, as a comparison, the BT tariffs, speeds etc.
Man the barricades! This brought BT onto the scene via a first, gentle compared to what was to follow, email, offering to help put matters straight where there were material inconsistencies on the site, working with the Parish Clerk. Or, more to the point, rewrite a village website's content so it became what can only be termed "BT propaganda".
Email, 15th Jan 2013 from a General Manager, BT Group to the Parish Council.
".... In addition, I’m surprised to note that there is no mention of the ****shire County Plan, which should result in a contract being awarded by the county council in the next few months in order to invest in enhancing broadband infrastructure in parts of ****shire deemed uneconomic by the industry for purely commercial investment. I understand that the village is included in the so-called “intervention area” which could result in its inclusion within the plan, although this will no doubt require discussion with the county council. "
The problem with this statement is indicative of the almighty cock-up which is BDUK.
A) "should result...next few months". Yep. Should. And the village COULD be included. When? Who knows. After yet more discussions. Which could take months or even years. Meanwhile, a company is here TODAY, right now, offering to do the job once, and do it right, providing a viable service far into the future. Unlike the County Plan. Which is a small NGA footprint which may or may not include this village.
B) "...parts of ****shire deemed uneconomic by the industry for purely commercial investment". Ah, but you see the village has raised sufficient registrations within the village to have been deemed viable by A N Other company, offering FTTH rather than FTTC, with gigabit rather than megabit speeds today, and multi gigabit tomorrow.
At this point, you would hope BT would say, "Actually, this is one less village we have to do, so we can use the money on over-delivering to our almost-contracted customer, ****shire County Council". Wouldn't you?
Nope. Let's stoop lower.
"I’m sure you will share my concern that the Parish website has content that might not be seen as open and equivalent but that is instead promoting the services of a particular company, in this instance from a company called XYZ, with the recommendation apparently made in the name of a member of the council, Councillor *******, and by implication on behalf of the council. I’m sure that this endorsement is on the Parish website in error – as you know, any promotion of a private company could be referred to the Standards Committee."
WTF?! Is that a threat perchance to both the Parish Council and one of its members - an individual of good standing within the Parish? An elected Councillor in a tiny village being threatened by BT. Well, well, well.
It gets better. After a kind offer to identify the offending material and remove it from the village website, working with the Parish Clerk, another email arrives two days later. From same chap at BT Group.
"...I would however like to discuss the related point regarding the overt promotion of a company by the council or its members. You will see from my original email that Councillor ****** has been actively promoting the adoption of services by XYZ, apparently in [the] capacity as a councillor, both within the local community and also further afield. I now understand that this activity has included both statements made at meetings as well as correspondence with other communities within ****shire and ****shire, in addition to content on the website.
"You’ll see from my earlier comments that I believe that any promotion of a private company by the council or its members in this way should not happen and could be referred to the Standards Committee. Therefore I’d be grateful if this matter could be addressed at the earliest opportunity and that any recommendations made by Councillor ****** are formally withdrawn. "
You believe wrong, mate. And this is not even a veiled threat to take action, is it? A)This Councillor has a non-pecuniary interest in broadband to the village B) The Standards Board for England was abolished on April 1st 2012, and with the Localism Bill so were many, if not most, Standards Committees. Where you been, Mr BTfella?!
"These new measures, outlined in the Localism Act, will replace the bureaucratic and controversial Standards Board regime, which ministers believe had become a system of nuisance complaints and petty, sometimes malicious, allegations of councillor misconduct that sapped public confidence in local democracy."
So, perhaps a rethink on "engagement" strategies my be required? The Localism Act Code of Conduct appears to have been adopted by county and borough in the above region.
On the other hand, it seems the rules change if said councillor, village website and PC promote BT, huh?
Reading the website changes since this correspondence, it is apparent that the locals involved do not take kindly to BT's approaches. The opening paragraph sets out why and how local people have been involved. In no uncertain terms. BT have not informed the webmaster, despite requests, about the so-called inaccuracies so changes can be considered hence the vast majority of content still stands. As it should. And further down, the comment about BT needing to get off its corporate backside ought to be carved in stone and placed outside an address in Newgate Street IMHO!
Along with this evidence of BT tinkering comes more worrying "hearsay", still landing as I write this (Funny how word has got out about the imminence of this post - an action long overdue, it seems). I haven't time to seek evidence before posting but I'm sure there are whistleblowers with integrity willing to deliver facts of BT "engagement" with local authorities to the mainstream media and real journalists.
As a starter for ten:
One council being threatened by BT that if support were shown for a local broadband scheme then the continuing presence of a call centre in town might need to be revisited.
Another council was told that the removal of a community project's postcodes from the intervention plan would see BT withdrawing from the BDUK tender and refusing to engage with the authority.
There are many more such rumours abounding. All it takes is further evidence from those in the know to blast this can of worms even wider open than it already is. After all, do you want your children and grandchildren's lives further blighted by yet more unnecessary debt, increasingly inappropriate comms, or weak willed governance?
I know how I feel about all of this. It is frustrating, depressing and downright sad that this country cannot hope to have future-proofed, fit for purpose 21st century comms solutions for all whilst such scheming, self-serving, shameful shenanigans are allowed to continue.
If you are one of those elected into office, or paid to serve, please ask yourself whether banging BT's drum is in the best interests of your constituents and could it be considered a dereliction of your statutory or contractual duty?
And as Frank Zappa told his children when educating them about the ways of the world and people's honour, integrity and intentions: Always ask yourself, "Are they being paid to say that?"