WBS cuts off mail users

In what looks suspiciously like a fit of staggering stupidity, WBS left its mail users high and dry on Monday.
Ivo Vegter
By Ivo Vegter, Contributor
Johannesburg, 29 Jun 2005

In what looks suspiciously like a fit of staggering stupidity and arrogance (but could be an unexpected warp in space-time), Wireless Business Solutions (WBS) left its mail users high and dry on Monday, unable to send any outgoing e-mail.

The iBurst broadband provider, which had to date been better received than rivals, unilaterally implemented a policy that removed some functionality from its subscribers, by blocking certain ports.

The policy change, which it for some reason communicated to only some of its users, and then only late on Friday, means WBS will now allow customers to only use its own SMTP server for outgoing mail.

Many users were inexplicably left without the ability to send outgoing mail, and would not have known anything about how to fix this problem, unless they happened to phone other customers.

After several fruitless attempts to reach an overwhelmed switchboard, a call to the WBS technical department was answered. I was told unceremoniously to change my SMTP server settings. An explanation was too much to ask for.

Other users have reported being entirely unable to reach anyone at WBS who could explain what was going on or fix the problem.

No senior staff at WBS were available for comment.

People who use their own domain names, rather than an e-mail of the form, will now be unable to legitimately use an SMTP server that matches the domain name of their e-mail address. This can have several results, some making it more likely that WBS users` mail will be considered spam by filter software.

When the domain of the e-mail and the IP of the sending server don`t match, spam filters attach a higher spam score to the e-mail. It may also be impossible to authenticate senders using the Sender Policy Framework, DomainKeys or SenderID standards, which protect users against phishing attacks.

For users with multiple Internet connections, this change also means that e-mail client configuration needs to be changed every time they switch providers, since another access provider`s customer cannot use WBS`s SMTP server, and a WBS customer must do so.

Webmail users left in the lurch

Webmail users who send from their webmail account using SMTP are also left in the lurch.

Users have reported being entirely unable to reach anyone at WBS who could explain what was going on or fix the problem.

Ivo Vegter, Contributor, ITWeb

The ability to designate an SMTP server that matches the domain of the outgoing mail is a standard part of an Internet service, which is what WBS advertises it supplies to customers.

Such a policy change amounts to a unilateral variation of the contract it has with customers, and several users have informed me they will immediately terminate their contract with WBS, in favour of a broadband offering from MTN or Vodacom, whom they hope are staffed by people who are more technically astute and more savvy about customer service.

Says one highly-placed source: "Essentially, WBS is no longer providing me with service I`m paying for, ie Internet access."

An online service ( that helps bypass such restrictive practices, describes policies such as WBS`s new mail rules as follows: "As a matter of principle, this is contrary to the spirit of the Internet. As a practical matter, it`s a pain in the ass."

The solution is a cheap, crude workaround for a problem that could have been fixed if WBS had implemented a properly configured, secure mail server. One complainant reports that a senior technical staffer at WBS did not know what IP spoofing is, which may explain why setting up a secure mail server is beyond the technical capabilities of WBS. Combined with the fact that its server does not even need a login and password to connect, one expects that the change will result in exactly the opposite of the stated intent.

The claimed reason for the ban is that this change was forced upon WBS by Spamhaus, a blacklisting service, although this reasoning seems flawed. Not only is it perfectly possible to monitor spammer activity without such a restriction, but if you do have a spammer on your network, the last thing you want is that they use your own SMTP server, and thereby get all your customers blacklisted.

As of this writing, several test e-mails sent using WBS`s SMTP server had not arrived, a full hour after being sent. Some, which were digitally signed using GnuPG, did arrive, which may suggest that the spam filter service to which I subscribe now considers my own mail to be spam. Whether this explanation is correct or not, in essence users are left with an SMTP server that does not work.

Curiously, ping times to WBS`s SMTP server range between 51 milliseconds and seven seconds, suggesting a severe overload problem - which is not surprising if few users used WBS`s server to send mail before this change.

Forum buzzing with complaints

The iBurst forum on was buzzing with complaints this week. One administrator had to drive 40km because a dropped link prevented them from remotely updating their customers` firewall settings.

Others mirrored my experience, and found nobody at WBS able to explain the problem, or able to respond to a query at all. Most found the change completely unacceptable, and expressed disappointment that they would have to stop recommending WBS`s broadband service.

Sudden major policy changes that break customers` Internet service are unacceptable.

If WBS wants to avoid the fate of Sentech, whose MyWireless offering flopped because of technical problems and incompetent customer support, it would do well to reverse this policy pronto, and consult customers in future if it comes up with other silly ideas before crippling their Internet connection unannounced.

But it may already be too late. In which case, RIP, iBurst.

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