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PlusNet’s Plans for 2007

2007 is the year of our 10th birthday and we intend to make it a good year.

Anyone following PlusNet’s progress will know that 2006 was a challenging year for all of us here. We’ve had external influences like Max upgrades, LLU implementation and increases in spam email. On top of this we’ve had our own service issues which have ranged from email problems, peak-time broadband speed discrepancies and difficulties for customers dealing with our support teams. This resulted in a major re-organisation and big changes at the top of our business in the latter part of the year, and we spent the last three months of 2006 concentrating on solving these basic problems. Although we have made very good progress in most areas, we haven’t reached our goals yet. In 2007 we are totally committed to regaining our position as the ISP of choice for discerning Internet access customers.

Towards the end of 2006, BT Retail made an offer for the purchase of PlusNet. Our board felt that accepting this offer would be a great boost for the long-term future of PlusNet and customers. BT has stated that it wishes to support us in further developing our customer focused business which stays true to the goals and aims PlusNet has always held; to be the obvious choice for any customer who demands a high-quality, value for money, reliable, innovative and transparent ISP.

BT has consistently maintained its intention is to keep PlusNet as PlusNet, such is our reputation; so customers will remain as PlusNet customers and not become BT customers. We will carry forward the principles that PlusNet has always maintained, e.g., encouraging staff to talk to customers freely, being open when problems occur and acting on feedback from customers. BT will bring many positives to PlusNet. There will be an exchange of expertise, innovative products and ideas. In addition, PlusNet will be able to invest more in new and better services than ever before.

What follows is a list of our commitments for 2007. We believe these commitments will focus us on delivering what our customers want this year. Everyone here is dedicated to continuing the good work that made PlusNet successful, and our new colleagues in BT are of the same mind.

So, without further ado, what does 2007 hold for PlusNet?

Summary:

Please see the detail below these points for more information, but in summary, these are our plans for 2007:

  • ongoing improvement of customer support including the expansion of our Business Support Team.
  • incremental broadband central capacity and continued improvements to our network management systems.
  • a next-generation email platform with new features, enhanced Webmail, and vastly improved service performance and resilience.
  • replacement of the “You Stay We Pay” payment scheme
  • introduction of new ‘converged’ products, such as ‘ BT Home Hub’, ‘BT Fusion’ and ‘BT Vision’, and an improved Voice over IP (PlusTalk) offering.
  • new hosting and domain solutions.
  • more transparency of our business policies, network performance, and a new community support website.

Plans for 2007 - Details

Customer Support

We’ve been talking about ‘award-winning’ customer support a lot recently. We’re not interested in awards just because they look nice in the trophy cabinet though. We are striving to provide customer and technical support functions which are recognised as the best available, and we want a team that works towards that goal in everything they do. We are currently on a major recruitment drive to attract quality candidates. Alongside this we will further improve our website support and the self-serve tools we provide. Maintaining a focus on the quality of new staff and provision of high-quality training once they arrive has been our priority, and this will remain the case as we grow our support teams further.

Our Sheffield based in-house support operation will continue in 2007. We have no plans to outsource any of our support operations as the proximity of our support function to the rest of the business is fundamental to our business model. Following the addition of more support staff we intend to scale up our business support team in February. Initially this team will operate on weekdays, from 8am – 8pm. The team will work towards tight response time targets, and the service will be included for all business customers.

During the past month we have implemented a number of initiatives within our customer-support team, designed to increase our focus on quality. We have also improved our response times to all support queries significantly. In 2007, our aim will be to deliver a support service that provides both a fast and a high-quality first-time response to all customer queries.

Broadband network capacity

Our biggest challenge over the last two years has been balancing the need to have a profitable and scalable product proposition whilst delivering good value to our customers. While we’ve been doing this, the use of broadband applications has exploded, yet the wholesale infrastructure that all ISPs work with has not scaled accordingly. In 2006 we saw increasing average usage, driven by faster speeds and more video and music downloads. We envisage that this growth in usage will continue throughout 2007, due to new technologies like Web 2.0 and TV on demand.

When we design any broadband product we plan to provide an amount of network capacity per customer. That drives how much capacity we buy, which in turn drives our costs. To allow for the envisaged growth in usage, we intend to increase the amount of network capacity per customer. We believe that this extra scale will provide an excellent customer experience.

As notified in our customer forums last week, we have now ordered an additional 622Mb/s BT Central pipe, which we expect to be available in March. We intend to activate two segments of this immediately; this means our total capacity will grow by 12.5%. Our estimated timescales are based on the lead times being met by both BT and our network equipment suppliers. Adding additional capacity now will provide us with extra sessions at peak times and gives us further room for growth.

May 2007 should see new BT Wholesale pricing, which will give us the opportunity to review our product designs. We are planning our network strategy with BT which means we will be able to further assure the quality and customer experience of our products.

Late in 2007 and into 2008 will see broadband standardising on ADSL2+, and therefore average usage continuing to increase. BT’s 21st century network services and Broadband Connect products will come to fruition and we intend to transition across to these from the end of the year. The scale and growth benefits of the BT Retail Internet Network (RIN) will put us in a position to offer our customers the best transition to the 21st Century network.

Email platform

Email has clearly been one of our biggest issues this past year, and we are all too aware that some problems remain apparent at this time. In June, we were handling an average of just under 4 million emails per day, compared to an average of 8 million per day in December. This increase is predominantly due to spam. Scaling our platform to handle this growth resulted in a number of incidents during upgrades, most notably the deletion of over 700GB of stored email in July 2006.

We have now specified significant changes to both our email platform and the methods we use to provide customer email. We will be building a mail platform that makes use of newer technology now available to us, providing much more reliability and addressing our future scalability needs. Spam reduction remains a priority and we will be providing better tools to configure email setups via our portal website including a facility to remove catchall email addresses in February.

Further details about the developments of our email platform will be provided in additional communication from our networks team. We are committed to resolving the outstanding issues which are still present. We understand that after connectivity, customers regard email as the most important service we provide.

You Stay We Pay

‘You Stay We Pay’ was an offer introduced to provide customers with an option to ‘defer’ hardware and set-up costs when joining PlusNet. This meant we could provide easy entry for new broadband customers, while still maintaining a low subscription charge for everyone. We recognise now however that 'You Stay We Pay' has become a barrier for some customers and we want to revisit it.

We believe that if we provide a quality service our customers will stay with us because they want to, not because they are committed to the 'You Stay We Pay' offer. We want to remove our ‘You Stay We Pay’ offer as soon as possible and provide an alternative that will still allow low cost entry and only require a 12-month commitment in terms of repaying the costs of that initial set-up.

For new customers this would mean a low-risk, low-cost way of getting broadband. We plan to implement this for all customers who have outstanding deferred fees. So if customers have been with PlusNet more than 12 months we plan to waive these fees entirely. We’re confident of providing an excellent service to all our customers in 2007 and we want to treat new and existing customers equally. By removing ‘You Stay We Pay’ we believe there will never have been a better time to refer friends and family to PlusNet.

New products – BT Home Hub, BT Fusion, BT Vision and PlusTalk

As a broadband provider we are in an ideal position to bring together a number of technologies in a way that will be very attractive for customers. We've remained at the forefront of broadband developments and believe that even as communication technologies converge we will stay there. Our closer relationship with key areas within BT means that we will have greater access to new products and resources.

As the number of network-aware devices in the home increases with set-top boxes, games consoles and other equipment needing access to the Internet the importance of the home hub will increase. In the future customers are likely to be using ADSL2+ broadband lines and VoIP rather than ADSL and landlines for calls. We’re reviewing our device strategy at the moment to make convergence a reality as soon as possible. However, there are a range of conflicting standards emerging; our objective is to offer our customers the flexibility to take advantage of new functionality available.

One such home hub already exists; as part of BT’s Total Broadband portfolio it offers the BT Home Hub which is the white box you may have seen in BT’s advertising. It combines a DECT phone, wireless router and integrates with BT Vision, BT’s next-generation TV service. We plan to make a version of this available to PlusNet customers in the near future. As there are more devices in the home an intelligent hub which distributes broadband around the home and integrates with an ISP is going to be increasingly important.

We also plan to start customer trials of a ‘BT Fusion’ product early this year. BT Fusion is revolutionising the way people use fixed-line and mobile phones. It makes it possible for a voice call to seamlessly transfer between a mobile phone network and broadband connection. As users move in and out of their homes or offices their calls simply switch using WiFi. This is a great product, especially for people who use mobiles wherever they are, regardless of the availability of cheaper fixed-line options.

As well as BT Fusion, we are exploring offering a version of BT Vision which provides a TV over Broadband service that includes catch-up TV (TV shows from the last seven days), and on-demand content including Premiership football, movies and more.

Coupled with our advanced broadband traffic-management techniques, we are in a unique position to deliver a quality TV service which inter-operates effectively with other applications in use on a broadband line at the same time. The network traffic used by different applications or even different devices will be prioritised correctly to ensure a reliable customer experience. This product will come in to its own as more and more people use set-top boxes to connect their broadband directly to their TV.

At the same time as these developments take place, we will be prioritising upgrades and improvements to our PlusTalk (Voice over IP) service to ensure it offers a better experience in terms of reliability and functionality.

The relationship with BT Retail will give us the option to potentially offer more services such as BT Home IT Support and BT Digital Vault, a PC back-up facility, to our customers later in the year.

Hosting platform

We will be building a new domain and web-hosting platform, which will provide easier configuration and new features that many of our customers have asked for over the years. The new platform is likely to be based on an enhanced version of the ‘ISPConfig’ control panel, which is a widely used solution within the hosting industry. A set of new low-cost hosting and domain name products will be made available to complement our existing hosting options.

In the longer term, we intend to replace our existing hosting options with solutions built on the new platform.

More transparency

PlusNet has become well known for the transparent way we have conducted our business over the years. We believe sharing information reassures our customers and makes using our service easier for them, as well as enabling valuable customer feedback. There is a downside to this though; sometimes the pace of conversation moves faster than our ability to make and implement decisions and as a consequence we can appear disjointed. Despite that we are determined to maintain and develop our transparent methodology, which we believe is the only way to truly remove any communication inconsistencies. We have nothing to hide, and the following measures will be put in place with this view in mind:

  • policies on the portal: to aid communication, we would like customers to be able to discover exactly how we will handle any given situation before they contact us. Putting all of our policies on the portal is a large piece of work, and initially we have identified the policies that we believe our customers would like clarification on. We plan to commence publishing these policies on our website during February. Further items will be added throughout the year on a priority basis.
  • more network graphs: in 2006 we started to add graphing to our website to show various elements of our network performance. These graphs can be found here. We will continue to add graphs to this page where that information is useful for customers.
  • service monitoring on the portal: Nagios is the tool we use for much of our internal network monitoring. The system alerts us whenever a customer-affecting service problem is detected. We are currently working on a customer-facing version of this tool, which will provide real-time, in-depth network monitoring directly to customers via our website.
  • real-time call stats: When we upgraded to a new phone switch in April, we lost the ability to report real-time call stats on our website. Work that was completed during the Christmas break has made this possible again, and real-time customer support call waiting statistics have been re-introduced to our website.
  • new service status tool: our current website service status tool no longer provides for the granularity of information we want to make available, and it can be difficult for customers to keep up to date with ongoing service issues. The tool is currently being rebuilt and when the new version is introduced there will be many features which will make it easier for customers to keep up-to-date with these issues. Unlike some ISPs, we take the view that the more information we make available the better. Our challenge is to present that information in an organised way, ensuring that the right information gets to customers affected by any particular issue.
  • priority problems on the Portal: our internal problem tool is used to track network and software faults on any of our live systems. Problems in this tool are represented in three priorities, with P1 (Priority one) problems being serious issues such as a broadband network or email outage. Currently most P1s are posted and updated on service status by a member of our customer comms team. This project will bring the view from our problem tool directly onto the portal. As soon as anyone in the business raises a P1 problem, it will be displayed for customers to see, rather than having to wait for a comms team member to make the problem report available via service status (which can take between 15 and 30 minutes after a problem is identified). Updates will also be communicated via this tool, directly by the engineers who are working on the problems, rather than details having to be relayed via the comms team.
  • network plan update: the RAG (Red-Amber-Green) document is a regularly updated document, previously internal to our networks team, which tracks known issues and plans for every element of our platform. The next update to this document is due later this month.

Community support site

In 2007 we are keener than ever to engage with our customers. In February we will begin building a new community-support website which will bring together the discussion forums from our various portals, along with a news site, PlusNet staff blogs, community bookmarks and much more. The site design is being finalised now and we expect the new website to be ready in March or April. This will follow a public beta-testing program and opportunities for input via the PUG website and our portal forums.

Open day

We recently announced that we’d like to open up our doors to all of our customers for a day, and give you a chance to meet us and discuss any aspects of our operation, face to face. As such, we are planning an open day in Sheffield, provisionally for the 30th March 2007. We will make a further update about this and provide details for customers who would like to come and visit us a little closer to the time.

Summary

Most of our early plans for 2007 revolve around stabilising our platform and finally fixing the issues that caused us pain in 2006. The new relationship with BT will allow us to make investments, deliver more quickly on our longer-term plans, which would not necessarily have been possible in other circumstances and introduce compelling new services. At the same time we intend to do things our way and to continue to be the PlusNet you selected. We are happy that we can realistically exceed the commitments made to customers in this document, and subsequently regain our crown as the first-choice broadband supplier for customers in the UK.

Communicating our vision of the future to our customers has always been important to us, and the degree of customer interaction is admired by BT. Therefore continuing to work closely with you, our customers, is extremely important and that affords the opportunity we have to give real feedback and influence the UK broadband roadmap.

Kind regards,

Neil Armstrong
Products Director
PlusNet




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