For sale: “Real peace of mind”. That’s what you get, according to BT – for those who can afford up to £50.99 a month for its fibre broadband deals. “No more worrying about hitting your usage limits,” boasts the blurb on its Infinity packages, which are supposed to provide unlimited internet access at speeds five times faster than average.
Indeed, Mazhar Ali had no fears about exceeding his limit since he upgraded to Infinity 1, because he could barely use the internet at all. And the promised “peace” turns out to be because his remote Welsh farmhouse had been all but cut off from modern communications.
“I used to get internet speeds of around 7Mbps on an old copper line, but BT promised up to 52Mbps if I upgraded to fibre,” he says. “After I signed a contract for Infinity, however, the speed dropped to 3Mbps. I was then told that the house was too remote to receive anything faster, so I asked to go back to my previous copper line. BT insisted this was impossible, so I was being charged more for less.”
Although superfast fibre broadband is hailed as the path to the future, coverage in the UK is worryingly low, according to a report by telecoms regulator Ofcom.
BT has already been reprimanded for misleading householders. Despite the 2015 ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority that its postcode checker was giving inaccurate timescales, the company appears to be selling top-price packages that cannot be fulfilled.
Last month, The Observer featured the plight of Matt Gibbs, who was told by BT that 18 months of abysmal internet reception would be resolved if he upgraded from Infinity 1 to Infinity 2, which promised a minimum speed of 64Mbps. It was only after committing to a 24-month contract that he infact discovered that the problems had all along been due to a fault on the line.
Moreover, BT’s own speed checker revealed that his line, even when fully functioning, was only capable of a 48Mbps maximum. Despite this, BT claimed that he could not be returned to his original Infinity contract and would have to take out a new one at a higher price. Since the article, several other customers have got in touch, complaining that they are trapped in expensive contracts that should never have been sold to them.
Karen Oxley of Craster in Northumberland says BT guaranteed her a minimum download speed of 45Mbps if she signed up to Infinity 1, despite the fact she was currently receiving only 7Mbps. However, after agreeing to the 24-month contract, her broadband remained as turgid as before. She says a BT engineer established that her line could never deliver more than 7Mbps, because superfast broadband was not yet available in her area, but BT insisted the problem must be inside her house. “The bottom line is that BT has advertised and sold something it cannot deliver,” she says.
John Mackeonis, meanwhile, was persuaded to buy Infinity 2 and replace his copper line with fibre after moving to a Cornish village where broadband speeds were less than 3Mbps. He says his order was twice cancelled without warning, and two months after submitting it he was told that while BT understood that the service was available, its offshoot Openreach had yet to provide the local infrastructure. After another two months, and another unannounced cancellation, he found that he was to receive another copper cable. “Basically, it was replicating the existing service, but for a higher charge,” he says. “Irritatingly, the Openreach and BT websites continue to tell me superfast broadband is available.”
Until now, internet providers have had to rely on infrastructure laid by Openreach, and many rural areas have been bypassed as fibre roll-out has been concentrated in towns and cities. The average download speed in rural areas is 12.2Mbps compared to 40Mbps in urban districts (67% of rural connections receive less than 10Mbps).
Customers who try to switch provider in the hope of a better service are likely to find the same problems persist, since most other companies use the same Openreach network. In an effort to speed up superfast coverage, Ofcom has announced plans to force Openreach to allow rival firms to lay fibre in its network. It also wants BT to ensure telegraph poles have the capacity to connect every home to the fibre network.
Last month, Ofcom proposed forcing providers to compensate customers when their service falls short. Around 2.6 million consumers could receive £185m each year under a plan which suggests a £10 daily payment if a broadband or landline connection is not fixed after two days, £30 for a missed appointment, and £6 for each day of delay if a service is not started on the promised date. “Compensation payments are currently given ad-hoc to a minority of those suffering problems, and can fail to adequately reflect the harm caused,” says Ofcom.
Consumer group Which? this month launched a campaign, Fix bad broadband, after research showed that 12.5 million households in the UK struggle with a substandard service. BT comes bottom for speed and reliability. Customers are urged to use the Which? web tool to test broadband speeds, and to complain if they fall short.
Under Ofcom guidelines, customers are entitled to exit a contract without penalty if they don’t receive the service for which they are paying. But broadband speeds are tricky, as terms and conditions specify they can’t be guaranteed.
Complaints website Resolver received 6,993 complaints about broadband providers last year – up from 6,462 in 2015 – and inadequate speed was one of the biggest single issues. “The rules are unclear on at what point you have been misled into taking out a contract that the firm can’t deliver,” says Resolver’s Martyn James. “On top of that there is the fact that it can be difficult to pin down what is causing the problem. Cue endless appointments with engineers and little in the way of resolution.”
BT tells The Observer that it checks what type of broadband is available and gives customers personalised speed range estimates before they place their order. “If a customer consistently gets lower speeds than we estimated, we try to improve it. Where we can’t do that, the customer can cancel the service without charges,” it says. “BT is investing more than £3bn in rolling out fibre broadband, which is now available to more than 26 million homes and businesses.”
BT blames Karen Oxley’s and Mazhar Ali’s slow service on the length of the fibre cable from the street cabinet to their homes. Following intervention from The Observer, Ali has been allowed to switch back to copper cabling and given a £2.50 discount on his monthly fee, but he says his broadband has continued to have problems and the service is almost permanently down. Oxley’s line has been moved to a nearer cabinet, and she is receiving speeds of 44Mbps, and a £50 goodwill payment.
John Mackeonis was contacted by BT’s chairman’s office after we intervened. He’s now receiving a speed of 8Mbps via copper cabling. “The greater picture,” he says, “is that anyone in a rural area has no chance of good broadband unless there’s a profit in it for BT and Openreach.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO GO FASTER
■ Position your router in the centre of the house away from thick walls, windows and electronic devices, and don’t switch it off. If it appears that your broadband is frequently disconnecting, your speed will automatically be reduced to restore reliability.
■ Connect the router to the master socket where the phone line comes into the house.
■ Plug your computer into the router as this gives faster speeds than wireless connections.
■ Upgrade your router every few years.
■ Buy a set of powerline adapters to create a network from the router right around your home.
■ Update your browsers and anti-virus software regularly and spring clean your browser’s archive of viewed web pages.
If none of this helps, the problem is likely to lie outside the house and your provider should fix it. If they don’t, you may be entitled to cancel your contract without penalty.