Friday, September 05, 2008

Future of the Radiocroft in doubt as ISDN becomes increasingly unreliable

I'm five months into my seventh year of presenting the current manifestation of the Tom Morton radio Show, and the majority of my daily broadcasts have come from The Radiocroft, a small cottage in the north mainland of Shetland.

This has been possible due to a technology called ISDN - Integrated Systems Digital Network - which provides a one-to-one connection between the small studio in The Radiocroft and virtually any BBC broadcasting studio. the speed and quality of the connection is ideal for radio broadcasting. Unlike 'modern' ADSL broadband, you do not compete with other internet users, and the speed of data transfer is the same in both directions.

ISDN was the first of the digital telephony systems which, it was promised, would revolutionise remote working. When I was a Scotsman reporter in the late 80s, BT was forever demonstrating its capabilities, with computer programmers in Orkney magically working from their attics for companies in Abu Dhabi. Now, of course, ADSL broadband means we take such things for granted. And BT are keen to jettison ISDN just as soon as they can.

However, live broadcasting over ADSL is not supported by the BBC. There are issues of quality and especially, of delay, because you're competing at the moment with other internet users. In addition, the really serious dealers in data tend to maintain an ISDN line as a failsafe, should broadband go down.

I was using a BT product called BT Business Highway, which was withdrawn two months ago. I had arranged with BT what had been promised would be a 'seamless' transfer to ISDN2E, their professional version. Instead, they pulled the plug on Business Highway an hour befor a programme was due to go on air. No letters, no email, no call. Nothing. In point of fact, Business Highway had crashed more often in the last six months of usage than in the previous five years.

It took ages to discover what had happened (I initially thought the final disconnection was just another fault), but eventually, thanks to the folks at BT Local Business in Aberdeen, BT agreed to instal ISDN2E. That took weeks. Once installed, and that was just a few weeks ago, it has broken down again and again and again.

It crashed on Wednesday after a lightning storm - the Marconi ISDN cards used in the local exchange are ultra-sensitive to this - and then, during yesterday's show, there was a sudden seven-minute crash. All ISDN connections in the area were off ( I tried the three still used for video conferencing in the local health centre). No explanation, though ordinary telephone calls south didn't work either. Which raises another issue.

BT currently connect Shetland to the rest of the Uk using old fashioned line-of-sight radio. It's slow and unreliable. A state of the art fibre optic cable exists - laid by the Faroese Telecom company between Faroe, Shetland, Orkney and the Scottish mainland - but BT have so far refused to buy space on it. This would provide a secure, fast connection and enable a host of advanced services.

But that's not what's bothering me. It's clear that BT management want shot of ISDN. I hear from within the BBC that maintenance of the corporation's ISDN network (there are small BBC ISDN studios in all kinds of unlikely places) is becoming increasingly difficult. The lightning-prone Marconi exchange card was once replaceable by a more robust Motorola version. No longer.

It's pretty boring, technical stuff, but what it comes down to is that neither myself nor my producers can have confidence in the ISDN services provided to the Radiocroft. The Lerwick studios of BBC Radio Shetland have access to (very) old-fashioned leased lines for broadcasting, and these are (a bit) more reliable. So it seems that instead of a carbon-neutral cycle to the Radiocroft, I'm facing a 75-miles round trip commute by car each day.

After all the work done and money spent to make remote broadcasting happen in Northmavine, it's sickening. It's bad publicity for BT, but they really don't seem to care one iota. I have had not one word of concern or apology from BT management. This despite a national network radio programme being put at risk. It's as if they neither understand nor care about the idea of public relations.

All the engineers I've dealt with have been exemplary in their willingness to sort the problems as they occur. But no van is fast enough to save a show that goes off-air half way through.

Remote broadcasting: it appears the dream may be over.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am so sorry you're having such a lousy time. I must say I enjoy the thought that you're broadcasting away in the wilds not in some dungeon studio in Glasgow. Especially when you play us the wind.

BT used to provide a service, a vital link to people, especially those in rural and remote areas. Though that was back before privatisation. Now it's just a big business that doesn't even seem to care about quality.

I hope you find a solution.

David said...

Tom,

Sorry to hear about the Radio Croft - we can'tlose it - so get in the Press make a stink of it and shame them.

Don't start me on their effective monopoly - like you, it is one here too. You are quite right - they don't give a damn. And OFCOM are toothless.

Just looking at my latest BT bill -£54.56 for just £13.33 worth of calls.... with the line rental paid in advance of course.

So I investigated their low user scheme - now known as BT Basic (not a lot of folk know about that - due to their lack of advertising) which would have been ideal and I'd qualify for - EXCEPT that 'my customer care assistant' had great pleasure in advising as ISDN (sic) ie ADSL is enabled on my line, therefore I'm not eligible. Oh, and if you have a mobile - and not necessary with BT/O2, you are disqualified too. Just what business is that of BT?

Of course, they are already getting the lions share of any subscription paid to my ISP - so BT are getting two bites of the cherry on the one line. Doesn't everybody regard the internet a utility and more essential that a phone line nowadays? But to combat free 'Voice over Internet Protocol' calls with Skype, etc and to keep up their profits they jack up the rental and reduce the cost of calls ie all their cheap off peak and weekend free calls deals and plans.

The BT rep. also informed me 'that the only reason they are running the BT Basic scheme is for old Granny's who don't use the phone much and the regulator forced them'

So if you have elderly relations, etc get them signed up for BT Basic here:-
http://snipurl.com/3na95
It's only £13.50 for three months including a £4.50 allowance for calls. But note 10p/min over that & 3p/call.

As for ADSL2+/21CN for here in Oban - although it's already enabled in the Southern cities as usual, we have not even got a date - it was Q.3 2011 the last time I looked. No doubt BT are holding out for another multi-million handout from Edinburgh ...

In my experience, thay are definately the worst 'utility' company - they can stick Buzby up their ....

Anonymous said...

Digital things are pants and the future is just going to be RUBBISH in all respects....just get a BIG MW transmitter and plug in a mic and ipod ...there you go you are not controlled by big biz Jim in Paisley

Laura Scott said...

Hi Tom

Just to echo Anonymous (but I put my name to posts), hubby and I listen to you in the office every afternoon and we too like to think of you working away in the remoteness in Shetland. It makes you seem more homely, like you are playing the records just us.

However, we have discussed over the past few days how the volume has fluctated considerably during the programme. I'm always shouting at hubby to turn the radio down or turn it up!

Hubby has also complained this week about your choice of music and as for that Alex Harvey Band cr*p today ... well!

Anyway, Tom, keep up the pressure on BT to try and keep the rural broadcasting dream alive in the Radiocroft.

With kindest regards
Laura Scott

Alistair Robb said...

Tom

This problem is well known within BT they decided some time ago to move away from ISDN2 and the replacement product is not reliable.
You should email a copy of your original post to Ian.Livingston@bt.com the new CEO of BT. He can certainly fix this.

Best regards

Alistair