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Fibre broadband mix-ups continue to frustrate new-build homeowners

Wednesday, September 12th 2018 by Phil Wilkinson-Jones

The problems that residents on new developments face simply trying to get an internet connection up and running are nothing new – they've been going on for years.

And yet despite government announcements and the introduction of dedicated new-build schemes by the UK’s biggest network operators – Virgin Media and Openreach – the situation remains poor for thousands of homebuyers.

New data from ThinkBroadband shows that new homes are less likely to have access to superfast broadband than older homes; just 81% of new-builds get speeds of 24Mbps or above, compared to 95% of all UK homes.

The figures also show that 17.6% of homes built this year get less than 10Mbps – the minimum speed that needs to reach every house in the country by 2020 as part of the government’s Universal Service Obligation (USO).

You’d be forgiven for thinking that for the 81% of new-builds that can access fibre broadband (those that already have the required infrastructure in the ground), getting a broadband connection up and running would be easy. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

'I never imagined I'd still be without internet'

Imogen Prasad has been trying to get broadband set up in her new home since the beginning of June, despite the fact there is a phone line running into the house.

Ms Prasad, a 23-year-old medical student, moved into her first home on The Oaks estate in Birmingham having been told by developer Persimmon Homes there was a line running to the property so she’d be able to get broadband from a number of providers.

Imogen Prasad has spent hours on the phone trying to get broadband installed

But three months later and having placed multiple orders for broadband with BT, Sky and Plusnet, she is no closer to actually getting set up. With the final year of her course about to start, Ms Prasad needs access to the internet because all her study resources, guidelines and text books are online.

“Even the majority of my notes are on a cloud-based system, which needs the internet to function fully,” she told Cable. “But the more pressing issue at the moment is all the time lost on the phone to BT and Openreach.

“I’ve had multiple phone calls that each lasted over an hour, with waiting in the queue and then being passed around multiple people and waiting on hold in between them. It’s a waste of time and is exhausting when it never yields any benefit.”

Ms Prasad said her revision has been affected over the summer but with the new term fast approaching, she has been made to feel “more nervous” about returning.

“There’ll be so much new stuff to learn, and e-tutorials etc to complete and there’s still no end in sight. I started what should have been a simple process at the beginning of June so never imagined I’d be without internet in September when preparation for finals began.”

'Older copper-based system'

Sky confirmed that an order for standard broadband (delivered over copper wires) had been cancelled by Openreach on the basis that only fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) was available at the development. But Openreach told Cable it is a copper site, although fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) broadband should also be available.

Plusnet said it couldn’t comment as Ms Prasad is no longer a Plusnet customer. BT is yet to respond to us, although Ms Prasad has been contacted by BT’s exec-level complaints team since we got in touch.

With so many conflicting bits of information coming from network operators and providers, it’s no wonder it can take homeowners weeks – if not months – to get connected.

A spokesperson for Persimmon Homes confirmed that “the existing housing phases of The Oaks are designed on an older copper-based system rather than a more recent requirement to provide FTTP. Openreach has confirmed that FTTC is available on this development, meaning that the telephone cabinet external to the site is linked to the telephone exchange by fibre.”

Both Openreach and Virgin Media have introduced dedicated schemes to help developers ensure new homes have fibre connections

The "more recent requirement" to install FTTP likely refers to the government's increasing preference for full fibre connections. The revised National Planning Policy Framework, published in July, encourages developers to install FTTP and an EU directive requires all new homes to have “the necessary infrastructure to support a connection to superfast broadband”.

But it takes a while for new policies to be implemented – housing developments are years in the planning – and besides, neither policy actually places any legal requirement on developers to make sure any broadband connections are actually up and running by the time residents start moving in. And developers haven't always seen access to fast broadband as a priority.

What Cable has found is that even if fibre cables are already in the ground, getting access to the internet in a new-build still isn't always plain sailing.

'Annoying and inconvenient'

Neil Marklew moved into his new-build home in Derby in July but despite the property being connected with fibre, he’s struggled to get a service installed.

“It’s a Miller Home in Derby and they’re all pre-fitted with a BT fibre-to-the-home box,” said Mr Marklew, a project manager at an engineering company. “There’s also the internal infrastructure for Virgin Media, but not the external. There’s no conventional phone line.

“The fibre connection, because it’s future-proof and because of the speed, is our preferred option, so I spoke to BT and they said it was not ready to be connected. That was weeks ago.

“I called Openreach and they said the line had been released but BT is still saying they can’t connect us.”

Mr Marklew said he contacted BT’s fibre-to-the-home support line and was told that a number of houses in his street – including some that are still unoccupied – are “ready to go”.

“But it’s random which homes are connected and which ones aren’t,” he said. “There’s no logic to it.”

Mr Marklew said the impact of not having a home broadband connection “isn’t life or death, but it is annoying and inconvenient”.

Neil Marklew has been waiting weeks for broadband to be installed but says unoccupied homes in his street are fully connected

“We’ve got two kids who are addicted to their phones and their iPads and they’re getting a bit fractious. We can’t watch iPlayer or catch-up TV and it does mean I have to spend longer in the office to do things I would normally do at home. I’ve got a nice new home and obviously I’d rather be spending my time here.”

An Openreach spokesperson said: “Before a full fibre service can be ordered by a customer, Openreach has to activate the fibre line connecting a premises using a unique reference number associated with the broadband socket in the property.

“In this case work took longer than planned due to a mix up in reference numbers with a neighbouring property.

“We’d like to apologise for this and would advise any new-build customer experiencing similar issues to speak to their property developer in the first instance who will work with the local Openreach team to resolve.”

FTTP kitemark

It won't stop reference numbers getting mixed up but the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents hundreds of councils in England and Wales, is calling for the introduction of a fibre-to-the-premises kitemark to reassure homebuyers before completion that they will have a fibre connection.

As councils are not being given the power to hold developers to account over a lack of fibre broadband (as we said earlier, the National Planning Policy Framework does not do this), the LGA says a new kitemark would at least make it easier for members of the public to make an informed decision.

Mark Hawthorne, chairman of the LGA’s People and Places Board, said: “Connecting our rural residents to future-proofed, fast and reliable broadband is vital to helping them get on in life and benefit from the advantages that decent digital connectivity can bring.

“The standard of digital connectivity we provide to our new-build homes should reflect our national ambition to roll out world-class digital infrastructure across the country. Residents will no longer tolerate digital connectivity taking a backseat in developers’ plans.”

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