Virgin Media takes council to court for holding fibre broadband rollout 'to ransom'
Virgin Media has taken the unprecedented step of instigating legal proceedings in order to solve a dispute with Durham County Council that is holding up its rollout of fibre broadband in the area.
The provider announced last year that it planned to extend its network to include 16,000 properties in Durham.
But despite good early progress the rollout hit the buffers in early 2018 when, according to Virgin Media, the council started demanding payment in exchange for access to grass verges that run alongside public pathways.
Virgin says access is necessary so it can lay fibre cables while causing minimum disruption to residents – and that using the verges was recommended by Durham’s own Highways department.
The provider wrote to Durham County Council in May in a final attempt to gain access to the land but was still unsuccessful. It is now taking the matter to court, in its own words “putting the updated Electronic Communications Code (ECC) to the test”.
In order to encourage the rollout of fibre services, the ECC was amended in 2017 to make it easier and cheaper for broadband companies to access land needed to install network infrastructure.
This includes the provision for the court – in this case the Upper Tribunal (Lands Chamber) – to impose land access rights where two parties have failed to come to an agreement. The court has to weigh up the impact on the landowner with the benefit to the end user of the services being installed.
Tom Mockridge, Virgin Media’s CEO, said: “We are disappointed to be taking this action against a council with whom we initially had a good working relationship. By demanding money for land access Durham County Council is now putting up a broadband blockade to thousands of homes and businesses across the county.
“This significant planned investment by Virgin Media will boost the local economy and provide consumers with a real alternative to BT’s Openreach network. With Virgin Media offering speeds 13 times faster than the local average, holding this fibre rollout to ransom over land fees risks leaving areas of Durham in the broadband slow lane.
“Durham has no basis for imposing any kind of a land levy in these circumstances and its attitude runs counter to that we have faced from more forward-thinking councils.
“This issue goes wider than the city of Durham. Haggling over land access when we build in a new area slows down broadband rollout and deters investment. It is also an impediment to government and Ofcom’s ambition for increased fibre rollout and network competition to BT. It’s time rhetoric was put into action to truly break down the barriers to building broadband.”
Cable.co.uk has reached out to Durham County Council for comment.
Stuart Timmiss, head of planning and assets at Durham County Council, said: "We are extremely disappointed that Virgin Media has decided to take this course of action as we were under the impression we had a good constructive dialogue and that we were awaiting further information that we had requested from them.
"Many meetings have been held over recent months, mostly to deal with the poor performance by Virgin Media in our communities. Earlier this year, we took the unusual step of serving the company with an improvement notice due to a significant number of complaints received from residents on the streets in which they were operating.
"This included poor reinstatement that is yet to be resolved, drives being blocked over long periods of time as well as damage to property. Virgin has been proactive in resolving these issues having terminated their contracts with contractors on site. However, these issues are not uncommon and we are not the only local authority who has been forced to take such action.
"Having said that, the rollout of superfast broadband across our county is very important to us and we will continue to work with all providers in finding the best way to achieve this. Our work through the Digital Durham programme is rolling out fibre-based broadband right across the county ensuring all households have access to superfast broadband. Providers such as Virgin Media only provide broadband services to certain areas within the county which they deem to be commercially viable."
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