Openreach and BT errors see customers charged tens of thousands to connect

Householders in some rural areas are being told they must hand over vast sums of money if they want broadband to be installed

When Dixey Brooks was preparing to move into a rented house in the west of Wales, the artist wanted to make sure she would be connected to broadband so that she could continue to work from home.

What ensued was a bureaucratic nightmare in which she was incorrectly told she would have to pay £20,000 to have the house near Lampeter, Ceredigion, connected to the phone grid – an experience which has been echoed by a number of other householders around the country due to errors by BT and its sister company, Openreach.

“Before we moved in BT had surveyed the property and agreed to install the line within three weeks provided we signed a contract for two years,” said Brooks, who also works as a superfood supplier.

Dixey Brooks was quoted a charge of £20,000 for 700 yards of cabling.
Dixey Brooks was quoted a charge of £20,000 for 700 yards of cabling. Photograph: Perly J Freeman

“But when the engineer arrived on the appointed day he found there was no line to connect. After weeks of toing and froing BT demanded that we pay £20,000 to lay phone lines from our house 700 yards to the exchange.”

Brooks approached Sky with her plight and was assured that the company could have her up and running without the huge charge within a fortnight. “I signed up, paid my dues and waited,” Brooks says. “Then Sky got back and told me Openreach needed £20,000 to lay a cable.”

Openreach builds and maintains BT’s vast copper and fibre network and has faced criticism over poor service standards and lack of competition.

Under the universal service obligation BT is only allowed to charge customers more than the standard £130 installation fee if the costs of laying cabling for a phone and basic internet connection exceed £3,400. Remote locations, overloaded exchanges or degraded lines can cause costs to soar, but some householders in well-populated areas with ready-laid infrastructure are mistakenly being told they must hand over their savings if they wish to be connected to the outside world.

When The Observer questioned the charge faced by Brooks, Openreach said there had been an error. “An automated system generated an incorrect charge to provide her service via BT and then Sky,” a spokesperson says. It was unable to explain why the mistake did not come to light during the five months Brooks had spent querying it.

However, the company promised that she would be connected without charge in June [last year]. In the event it was October before she had a phone line, and BT has subsequently given her a year’s free service for the 10 months she spent without one.

About 300 miles further south Amanda Crago had a similar experience when she moved to the Cornish village of Burras near Helston.

BT demanded she pay more than £9,000 for cabling. “They only mentioned this charge after five months fobbing us off with various stories,” she says. “Then customer services told us in a phone call that if we paid up we could be connected that day, which suggests the infrastructure was already in place.”

Indeed, the cabling was already in place, as BT suddenly discovered when The Observer asked it to explain the charge. “When we conducted a survey of the property we mistakenly prepared to install a second line rather than fixing and reconnecting the existing one,” a spokesperson says. “Under BT’s universal service obligation a second line does incur charges.”

Again, BT showed no signs of admitting the error during the nine months of correspondence with the family. The line has now been installed without charge, but Crago and her parents are still out of pocket. “We run small businesses and I was in the process of building both our websites,” she says. “I’ve been unable to continue this without internet connection and this has had a detrimental effect on us.”

Adam Pallant, meanwhile, was told to stump up £10,000 if he wanted a phone line for his elderly mother-in-law. When he bought her new home in the Norfolk village of Holme-next-the-Sea it already contained a working phone line. “Since the vendors wanted to keep their number, the line was disconnected and we duly signed up to a new contract with BT a week or so after completion,” he says. “BT missed the installation date and, after several weeks of chasing them up, we were finally advised that Openreach had ‘given away’ our connection and were demanding nearly £10,000 to install a new line to the property.”

BT declared there was nothing it could do and issued Pallant with a letter of deadlock. “Openreach doesn’t seem to have any direct complaints process; Ofcom says Openreach is out of its remit and Citizens’ Advice hasn’t been able to help,” Pallant says. “Meanwhile, my vulnerable 78-year-old mother-in-law spent three months with no contact to the outside world as there is no mobile signal at the house.”

This time BT discovered that the address provided in Pallant’s application did not match the address on its records, although it does not clarify how it successfully corresponded with him. “This led us to treat it as a new line,” a spokesperson says. Once again, the mistake only came to light when The Observer got involved and, after three months of intransigence, BT installed the line without charge.

The problem for customers is that they cannot complain directly to Openreach, which supplies and maintains the telecoms infrastructure on behalf of service providers. Instead they must liaise via their chosen service provider. Although Openreach is part of the BT Group it operates independently.

Openreach says that less than 0.1% of householders are charged more than the standard rate for a line. “We will always use an existing BT line where possible, but if there isn’t one in the property or there is damage to the existing socket or wiring we may need to charge a £130 connection fee,” a spokesperson says. “Sometimes there is a lot of extra work needed to provide the connection, including providing a new telegraph pole or digging up a road to provide service to a property, which can incur an excess construction charge.”

Openreach insists that cases of erroneous charging are “unique and isolated”. “There is an individual explanation as to why each of these customers incurred a charge,” the spokesperson says. “We are sorry about these cases and have resolved them.”

‘Sometimes there’s a lot of extra work needed to provide the connection, including providing a new telegraph pole,’ says an Openreach spokesperson.
‘Sometimes there’s a lot of extra work needed to provide the connection, including providing a new telegraph pole,’ says an Openreach spokesperson. Photograph: Alamy

Ombudsman Services, which handles complaints from dissatisfied customers, says it has no data on how many of its investigations involve erroneous charging on the part of BT and Openreach. Given that BT only admitted its mistakes when the media got involved, it’s possible that more householders are living without a phone line because of massive, wrongly imposed costs.

Dixey Brooks is certain she would still be without phone or broadband if she hadn’t involved The Observer. “After they finally installed my phone they sent me a massive bunch of flowers, which really made me laugh,” she says. “They are obviously terrified of bad press.”

An uncertain future

Openreach owns the “last mile” of the fibre and copper wires that run to people’s homes, writes Shane Hickey. The company has been the subject of criticism from competitors of BT - Sky and TalkTalk have said BT is given an unfair advantage and complain of bad service and missed appointments for customers.

Next month Ofcom is expected to publish its views on whether splitting Openreach from BT would be the best way to improve competition. The price that BT charges its competitors to use the network is regulated, but the company has been accused of underinvestment and poor customer service.

Readers from new property developments have previously contacted The Observer with complaints over delays in Openreach connecting them to phone and broadband. Last summer the company said this was down to the increase in housebuilding across the UK.

Earlier this month Opeanreach announced that Clive Selley, the boss of BT’s technology arm, will replace Joe Garner as chief executive when the latter joins Nationwide. Losing Openreach would be a big blow to BT’s finances, given that it provided £5bn of a £17.8bn revenue last year, £2.6bn out of £6.3bn in underlying profit, and more than half of its £2.8bn free cash flow.

Contributor

Anna Tims

The GuardianTramp

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