London Schools Blocked from Receiving Email for Rival Broadband Bids - ISPreview UK
Controversy has erupted after the London Grid for Learning (LGfL), which has a deal with Virgin Media to supply broadband to educational establishments in the city, began blocking schools from viewing emails sent by rival ISP Exa Networks that has been trying to sell its own Internet solutions.

The non-profit charity and council organisation currently supplies broadband services to around 2,500 schools in the city, which since 2011 has been harnessing the power of Virgin Media’s £200 million and fibre optic based Public Sector Network in London as part of a 5-year contract (LondonPSN).

The new Public Sector Network was setup to be both faster and cheaper to run than the old one, but it’s now become the subject of a bitter competition spat. According to the BBC, LGfL admits that it has been blocking emails from Exa Networks, but they claim that this is only because their email filtering system detected a mailshot from the ISP as SPAM (junk).

Meanwhile Exa Networks denies that its messages were SPAM and said that their emails had only been sent to schools after an initial contact was made.

Mark Cowgill, Exa’s Co-Founder and Director, said:

It’s just wrong, it’s anti-competitive. It’s not allowing schools to make sure they get value for money. How can they, if they can’t compare different offers?
In fairness junk email filters can be extremely strict and do catch legitimate messages, which sadly often results in legitimate messages finding their way into the junk folder. The fact that Exa Networks made prior contact with the schools would have no relevance whatsoever to a dumb automated spam filter (it wouldn’t know about that).

At this point the situation would be understandable, but there’s more to it than that. In particular the LGfL contract with Virgin Media is now up for renewal and a new agreement looks to have become a certainty, with some Schools being almost aggressively discouraged from picking an alternative.

Consider this extract from a memo that was sent to schools in Ealing by a council IT consultant, Mark Robinson, who also happens to be the director of LGfL.

Mark Robinson, Director of LGfL, said:

LGfL represents 2700 schools and can therefore negotiate & leverage a much better deal than ONE school can. Beware of offers from companies such as Schools Broadband, RM, EXA, etc.

If you ARE stubbornly still tempted to waste your time looking elsewhere, please bear in mind that offers on the market tend to offer a contended service (you share bandwidth with others). This rarely compares with uncontended LGfL fibre (guaranteed bandwidth). LGfL bundles many services in to the overall contract, so if considering another supplier, you would need to source and factor in costs for:

  • web filtering
  • anti-virus (Cost approx £2000 – £3000+ pa)
  • staff email (LGfL StaffMail)
  • student email (LondonMail2 incorporating Office 365)

Be aware that if switching from LGfL, you would also lose access to :

  • masses of premium online resources from over 70 different educational content suppliers (These resources cover all subject areas from EYFS to KS4+)
  • awarding winning “Just2Easy” online software incorporating semi-auto school blogsite
  • online video hosting & streaming service (LGfL VideoCentral)
  • podcasting service
  • 500GB secure online cloud storage (myDrive)
  • secure file transfer between all LGfL USO account holders
  • QR code log in for younger pupils using tablets
  • AND . . . if you use VOIP telephony, it quite probably wouldn’t work

Easiest decision you ever need to make!
The official line from Ealing council was that “Schools have complete freedom to choose whichever broadband services they subscribe to,” although clearly some pressure is being put on schools to ensure that they stay with LGfL. The existing Virgin Media platform might well be an excellent fit, but the way it’s being communicated is at the very least questionable.

Exa further claims that LGfl currently charges London primary schools £7,462 a year for five years, while his firm charged £3,500 in the first year, followed by £2,500 in subsequent years. Mind you it’s not a true apples to apples comparison and Exa admits that it doesn’t supply some of the above listed extras, although they claim that most schools don’t use all of those anyway and often pick free alternatives (e.g. Skype).

The good news is that the LGfL has now admitted that its approach to the communication of all this was a “mistake” and one that “gave too little information about time-scales for response, putting unnecessary pressure on schools.” Never the less the LGfL stand by their solution and Exa has already complained to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which may or may not decide to pursue the gripe.