Thousands of people in broadband black spots face bills of up to £100,000 to get online, despite a new legal right to broadband.
The universal service obligation (USO), launched by the government in March, gives households with poor internet access the right to demand “affordable” connectivity from BT.
Installations that cost £3,400 or less are paid for by BT, but an estimated 60,000 premises will cost up to 30 times more to connect and residents will have to fund the excess themselves. Some face waits of up to 24 months to be connected, by which time the minimum 10Mbps speed guaranteed by the scheme may be obsolete.
Critics claim that the initiative is penalising rural communities where economic productivity is already 16% below the national average.
Richard Bunning was quoted £70,000 plus a monthly charge of nearly £50 for providing a basic 10Mbps service to his Devon farm. “We naively thought the USO would give us new rights to a decent broadband service, and as we live only 400 metres from a BT fibre backbone and five miles from the nearest exchange, we were sure the £3,400 subsidy would pay for it,” he said. “It seems BT are charging us to run a fibre cable from an exchange 20 miles away because of the historic layout of the phone network.”
A spokesperson for BT said: “It’s frustrating when it seems that a connection may be relatively close, but the solution is often more complex than it appears. We’ll investigate what options are available for this customer and try to find a solution.”
There have been examples of people being quoted £100,000.
The coronavirus lockdown has exposed the digital divide across the country, as families are forced to rely on the internet for work, schooling and shopping. A survey by the advice website Broadband Savvy revealed that a third of UK households are struggling with inadequate broadband speeds and, as banking and government services increasingly move online, some communities have been cut off from essential facilities.
According to the Broadband Savvy founder, Tom Paton, rural communities are having to pay the price for inadequate investment in infrastructure. “The government has promised to deliver nationwide full-fibre broadband by 2025, so some consumers are essentially being told to pay six-figure sums for infrastructure that they are supposed to get for little or no cost in the next few years,” he said.
Meanwhile, BT and the telecoms regulator Ofcom are at odds on how installation quotes should be calculated. Ofcom said it was investigating BT following claims that the company had been overcharging residents. Tom Hoy applied to BT for an upgrade under the USO after suffering years of intermittent broadband in his village near Maidstone in Kent. He and his neighbours had previously investigated Openreach’s community fibre partnership which provides grants for optic-fibre upgrades, but had been deterred by the £12,000-per-household cost.
He was appalled when BT quoted him £18,700 to be connected a basic 10Mbps service. “I was told that if I agreed to pay, 14 of my neighbours could apply to be connected for free once the cabling is laid, but that there was no provision for cost sharing under the USO,” he said.
According to Ofcom, BT is obliged to calculate how many eligible homes and companies could benefit from an installation, and to divide the total cost accordingly before providing a quote to an applicant. “We’re concerned about the high amounts BT has quoted some people who request a broadband connection under the new universal service – particularly where connection costs could be split across a number of homes in an area,” said a spokesperson. “We’ve raised this with BT as a matter of urgency and expect it to take action to ensure people are able to exercise their rights under the universal service.”
However, BT insisted that shared costs are not permissible under USO rules since only individual households can apply: “The USO process isn’t currently set up to accommodate this type of request, but we are working with Ofcom to find a solution,” said a spokesperson.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport confirmed that it expected installation quotes provided to householders to reflect the potential for neighbouring properties to sign up to the upgraded service. “The USO is just one option available,” said a spokesperson. “Vouchers offering help with connection fees to get gigabit broadband to rural homes and businesses are on offer right now and we will soon announce plans for how a further £5bn will deliver next-generation broadband to hard-to-reach areas.”
However, the campaign group Which? warned that uncertainty about timescales for the gigabit rollout may force households to pay for an inferior 10Mbps broadband under the USO.
Bunning said consumers should not have to fund the infrastructure for essential utilities. “Western Power Distribution don’t charge us to renew the distribution electricity network cables, nor South West Water for supply and sewage pipes,” he said. “So why should BT charge us to install network cabling which they will still own and charge us a heavy fee to use every month?”