This article is the individual ponderings of a postmaster and does not necessarily reflect the views of the NFSP, but is the sort of communication we receive or hear that in turn is reflected in our future policies/actions.
Horizon was already eight years old when the first and original Apple iPhone was launched in 2007. I remember the excitement and hype around each new version which was always national news. The excitement has died to nothing over the years, and I’ve had to look carefully at my current iPhone to establish that it is an iPhone13.
The first iPhone was launched with an equally new operating system called iOS. Although my phone is only a couple of years old, it is already old in the world in which Apple live. My electrician showed me his new iPhone 15 that cost him an eye watering £1,500 only yesterday. Whilst the iPhone hardware, for which Apple charge so handsomely, has reached version 15 the software is at iOS 17. The brief notes that accompany the latest update, 17.2.1, says it includes “improvements, security updates and bug fixes”.
The numbers behind the release number reveal that there have been literally hundreds of updates to each of the major version releases. That Apple, after spending billions of dollars and having an estimated 1.5 billion users worldwide, still suffers from the need to be providing bug fixes tells you all you need to know about the world of software development.
Moving the topic along to Horizon, I can say that thankfully I was not a postmaster when the Horizon scandal began. I only became a postmaster in 2019, some four years after the final prosecution in 2015, and my branch, Kington Main, in rural west Herefordshire escaped any postmaster prosecution so far as I know. The ITV drama ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’ however brought home what a random act of chance it was to either be caught, or avoid, the Horizon net of life-changing errors.
The gripping, and somewhat terrifying, documentary drama showed Post Office Ltd (PO) using a combination of intimidation, unlimited taxpayers’ money and even lies, as they informed individual postmasters that they were alone with their problem, to bring about hundreds of prosecutions. Having used its power to drag postmasters to court, it then bamboozled judges with technical rubbish from Fujitsu’s systems analysts to bring about financially crippling and eye-watering prosecutions up to and including imprisonment for men and women who were pillars of their local communities.
The look of Horizon on our screens has changed dramatically over the years, in iPhone terms I have no idea what software version we are up to and how many updates have been released and uploaded to our terminals in the more than 20 years it has existed. Post Office only say, “there have been several versions of Horizon, the current version was introduced from 2017 and we continue to make improvements”.
Even today, I wonder if there is there any postmaster out there who doesn’t have an issue of some sort with Horizon? For me it’s the ease with which even experienced staff can make withdrawal / deposit errors and from this the tension as to whether the day balances. If it doesn’t, the forensic skill of my Branch Manager coupled with her ability to review CCTV to find where the error was made amazes me.
So good riddance and “Out with the old and in with the new” as they say. However, there is another saying, “Be careful what you wish for” and this could apply to NBIT if our leaders at Post Office Limited are not very careful.
So, here’s a list of three things I like about Horizon:
1: It works.
2: Familiarity - how many of your staff do you think might chose the introduction of NBIT to be their moment to retire?
3: It’s data efficient.
Data efficiency is more of an issue than you might at first think. Horizon was invented as a permanently “online” system many years ago when broadband speeds were universally, rather than selectively, terrible. The need for the system to work with slow broadband means it is very data efficient. Consider for a moment that when you put through a DVLA transaction you send data to the DVLA on the vehicle in question and receive a specific answer within seconds whilst Balance Enquiries and Mails Address Enquiries all go off to different servers with which Horizon has to speak for it to work.
Some years ago, in the 80’s Porsche decided the iconic 911 needed replacing. It had an air-cooled engine, a tendency to spin off the road into ditches and a somewhat strange dashboard layout. Rather than fix these problems they came up with two highly acclaimed technical marvels, the 928 and the 944. The 911 is still with us whilst the replacements are cars you’d now need to look up. Evolution not revolution was Porsche’s conclusion.
NBIT is really a two-element project. The first element is the new equipment that will arrive in our post offices along with the back-end servers to which we will connect for the transactions to be processed. The second element is the broadband connection that NBIT needs in order to have the electronic chat it needs.
I can say with certainty that NBIT will be a (bandwidth) hungry beast. It’s a fact of software design life that this is true. Horizon is often accused, quite fairly, of being slow but, for the most part, it won’t be Horizon that is slow but the broadband connection on which it relies. You can see the “slowness” anytime by going to the back-office help files. Requesting “Help” involves Horizon asking for large files to be downloaded. The time this takes is entirely dependent upon the speed (or bandwidth) of the connection to your office.
We know from the last Postmasters Conference that a company called Verizon have been chosen as PO’s Broadband delivery partner. They are an interesting choice. Massive as a telco/ISP in the USA, Verizon have also been in the UK for more than 20 years and have their own fibre networks in cities here and there, but they are not a national ISP with their own network. PO have 11,500 offices that are going to need fibre optic connections so what network is going to be used to do this? There’s only one obvious answer. BT Openreach.
What is the Bandwidth (speed) requirement for a single NBIT terminal? What is the requirement for three NBIT terminals? Sorry I’m getting technical here, but NBIT is a technical project. PO bosses need to be asking these questions and understand the importance of the answer.
So, when are we going to get NBIT? Not before 2025 I wrote down based on the PO briefing presented in the last Postmaster Conference but if I was really going to have to put money on a year I’d say not before 2027 for a 100% rollout. Why? The national rollout of fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) has not happened yet. BT, the only FTTP carrier with a serious national plan are struggling with the scale of the job and Ethernet (Leased Lines), the only other technology that could be delivered to every post office in the land, are extremely expensive products compared to their copper cousins over which Horizon currently functions. Perhaps PO and Verizon will consider a mix of FTTP where they can get it and Ethernet where they cannot. Anything less than these two technologies will leave NBIT gasping for breath delivering a go-slow that will make Horizon feel like a rocket ship in comparison.
I hope they test both the functionality of NBIT as well as simulate multiple NBIT terminals working in a rural branch before rolling it out to us all.
If they have any doubts, PO management should ask themselves why they need to move us to NBIT and remember Porsche were prepared to learn an expensive lesson and stick with evolution. On that theme, if PO were to do the second part of the project first and provide direct fibre connections to our branches, we might start to feel a bit better about Horizon.
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