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Is your broadband reliable enough for lockdown?

An Openreach van parked in front of Swansea bay

With the UK on lockdown, connecting people via phone and broadband services has never been more important. Our guest explains how Openreach is working to keep you connected.

This is a guest post by Catherine Colloms of Openreach. All views expressed are her own, and not necessarily shared by Which?. 

With millions of us now with limited physical access to the outside world there’s a growing appreciation of the vital role that virtual connectivity plays in keeping us close to friends, family and life in general

But there are many people who were already reliant on broadband connectivity and now need it more than ever.

Top of the list, alongside key public services, are vulnerable customers. And under this national emergency, we’re prioritising repairs and network maintenance that supports them. 

Get all the latest news and advice from the Which? coronavirus hub

Connecting vulnerable customers

We’ve built in new processes beyond what we would usually do to make sure vulnerable consumers are connected – and are working with the government and the NHS to make sure that those who are in most need of support are prioritised in future.  

The government has categorised Openreach staff as key workers – because they need us to keep the UK connected.

Thankfully a large amount of the work we do – including fixing faults, adding capacity and building faster, more reliable full fibre networks – is outside, so you’ll still see Openreach engineers working to maintain service across the UK.

The government has also asked us to continue building our full fibre network, so the economy is ready to bounce back after the crisis.   

This has meant we’ve had to make some very rapid changes to our processes, policies and working practices to avoid the threat of Covid-19, and I wanted to share with you some of the key things we’re doing to keep both customers and our own people safe.

Remote assistance

We’ve had to completely scale back on customer home visits and our engineers will now only enter a home when there is a total loss of service which we cannot fix from outside, and there’s no alternative such as mobile access. 

The good news is that we can fix many issues outside the home, which keeps both our engineers and the public safe.   

We can also look at potential problems remotely with special software that can detect some issues on a customer line – without having to enter the premises.

For example, on fibre based broadband lines we can detect if there might be an issue with home wiring, or if there are issues with broadband modems which customers may be able to fix themselves. 

We’re not doing new installations in the home – unless there is an absolute critical need for a vulnerable customer with no other service available.

Self installation

It’s also worth pointing out that millions of customers may still be able to upgrade or order a new broadband service – even with the current restrictions – as many providers offer a self-installation package.

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Upgrading to higher speeds, which may be useful if people are home working or have children at home, can also be done without an engineer visit.

Around 96% can now access superfast broadband (defined as offering speeds of 30Mbps and above), but around 14m homes and businesses, who have access, don’t take a service. So, it is worth people checking online or with their current provider to see what is available to them. 

Where vulnerable customers might need help in setting up a new broadband line, or where our engineers might need some help in diagnosing what issues exist in the home, our engineers have been equipped with social media apps on their work phones – including FaceTime and WhatsApp, in order to talk directly with customers without having to enter the premises.

Steps for your protection

If customers are deemed vulnerable – and have a problem we can’t fix without entering the home, our engineers are able to do so, but will be maintaining social distancing – keeping two metres away from anyone – in accordance with the guidelines set by Public Health England.

That might mean asking customers to stay in another room while the engineer works on the home equipment. 

We also have supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) including full overalls, overshoes, gloves and masks to be used by engineers – where it is considered appropriate according to the Public Health guidelines, for example, if a customer declares they have been experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. 

Meanwhile we’ve joined forces with companies across the industry – including, TalkTalk, Virgin Media and Vodafone, EE, Plusnet, and BT – to support Ofcom’s ‘Stay Connected’ campaign.

You can find out more about what we’re doing from our website.

Remember that Openreach is a wholesaler. It was set up to work for communications providers – the companies that you buy your home or business phones or broadband from.

Contacting them is the fastest way to fix a whole range of problems. If they think the issue is with our network, they’ll contact us and arrange for us to fix it. 

This was a guest post by Catherine Colloms of Openreach.  All views expressed were her own, and not necessarily shared by Which?. 

How have your internet speeds been performing since the start of the lockdown?
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Has the lockdown changed how you feel about your internet service?

Is your connection good enough to handle video conferencing, streaming services, and other high bandwidth activities?

What tips do you have for others to get the best speed out of your internet connection?

Share your thoughts in the comments.

Comments
Em says:
3 April 2020

I made the switch from Eclipse (KCOM) to Zen Internet in August last year, mainly as Eclipse were just too expensive for the non-service they were providing.

We suffered line quality issues (wet joints) in October, which took BT OpenReach several visits to resolve, but since then, no further problems. With an FTTC Broadband connection, I am currently getting 70Mbps download speeds and no sign of any slowdown due to Covid-19 homeworking or lockdown.

Whilst now is not the time to be switching, I can thoroughly recommend Zen for the way they have handled switching and line faults to date. The technical helpline have always answered immediately and without waiting and have kept me advised of progress where appropriate. The BT engineers have also been good and turned up for appointments. Can’t be faulted, except for the lead times to attend and sometimes barking up the wrong pole, as the cable routes are not documented.

A friend who lives in East Yorkshire said that KCOM have removed data caps on their broadband service during the coronavirus problem: https://www.kcomhome.com/discover/categories/kcom-news/kcom-removes-all-data-usage-limits-to-support-customers-during-coronavirus-outbreak/

I wonder if other ISPs are doing the same.

We are completely without broadband at the moment. Living of mobile data! We moved a day before the lock down and the engineers couldn’t install what they needed to. We tried another provider and they said they would be able to just send a modem the next day but then double checked and said that they did have to do work. Abby advice on how to speed things up would be appreciated! Two people remote working and a 7 year old in need of school activities is proving very expensive!

Hi Abby,

At least where I am in Gloucester, I now seem to be getting upload and download speeds of roughly 10 Mbps via 4G on giffgaff. In contrast, my Plusnet landline is giving about 15 Mbps down and about 1 Mbps for uploads.

If you need to avoid spending a small fortune on mobile data charges, I recommend that you change to a bundle that gives you oodles of data, either with you current mobile provider or with a different one. A few months ago, I moved my old O2 number to giffgaff – it was quick as easy to do.

For an example of typical current bundle prices, see here:fgaff.com/sim-only-plans . These days, giffgaff is not alone in offering those kind of deals.

Em says:
3 April 2020

Are you using your mobile data natively for iOS or Android apps, or to provide WiFi for computer/laptop?

Without knowing more, it’s hard to suggest, other than to get the fastest/cheapest data package.

If you live close to neighbours or a business with broadband, see if you can negotiate a WiFi connection to their router. Maybe someone would welcome sharing the monthly rental cost, particularly if they are in financial difficulties.

I’ve just switched to giff gaff and have the unlimited bundle but still burning through data. Video conferencing seems to be particularly data intense.

Em says:
3 April 2020

Oh, and any expenses where your employer requires you to work from home should be tax-deductible, so your mobile data bill should be reduced according to your tax band, plus any essential expenses to upgrade your communications.

Hi Abby,

I think all kinds of media streaming are data intensive.

I think my main data use is streaming YouTube (and other) movies. Just on my own I’ve used 4.5 Gbytes in the last two and half days.

Depending on your video conferencing software, you may be able to change your settings so you use less data, e.g. by reducing the pixel resolution and or frame rate of the streams sent and received.

In olden days, early compact digital cameras could be attached via ordinary USB cables for use as webcams. I think modern ones don’t offer that facility because USB connections may not be fast enough to stream “modern standards” of image resolution and frame rate. I’ve been messing about with home CCTV for a few weeks here and I’ve discovered that video streaming several camera feeds over a home wifi network can be quite data intensive, especially if unconstrained picture quality and frame rates are used. In my case, dropping the frame rate to 10 fps (frames per second) helped.

Em says:
3 April 2020

You should be able to turn off the video stream and still use audio and desktop conferencing. In my case it is a welcome relief not have to watch some of my colleagues all the time!

Hi Abby – Switching to a mobile tariff that includes unlimited data may look attractive but these often offer a restricted speed, so it’s a case of shopping around. I like Em’s suggestion, which is probably not allowed by the ISP but in the circumstances a sensible solution.

Kevin says:
3 April 2020

Hi Abby
another option if your company are using commercial video conferencing kit is just to use the phone if your data is suspect.

Many VC packages allow the admin set up a landline number for a simultaneous voice conference call, which shouldn’t suffer from dropouts like voice over IP [a data link call]. As Em and other have said suggested, there are some advantages in not having the live video feed.

It’s also a very useful backup feature for any important VC session, especially if some of the attendees are unfamiliar with VC in general or the particular software used.

Hi Abby,

Do you know who the previous occupants had broadband with? Your neighbours might have noticed a provider has gone missing since they moved out.

I would have thought if you could use the same company, any work at the exchange would already have been done and all they need to do is send you a router.

Otherwise ask the neighbours if you can share theirs for a while.

Catherine – There was an interesting, but inconclusive, discussion here recently about the Universal Service Obligation for providing “a decent and affordable broadband speed”. It started here –
https://conversation.which.co.uk/technology/coronavirus-video-call-zoom-skype/#comment-1591214

Would you be able to comment on Openreach’s position on this? The general impression is that the USO does not offer much satisfaction to customers stuck on a very poor service because there are a number of obstacles to getting an uplift in speed and, even if the customer is eligible and such an improvement is practicable, there is a significant time delay. The whole thing seems to be hedged about with qualifications and the customer is then tied to a particular telecom service provider [BT was quoted]. It does not look like a policy that puts the customer first and appears to be devised in order to put control and all decisions firmly in the hands of the service provider and/or Openreach. As an ‘obligation’, in terms of implementation, it lacks certainty and any guarantee of delivery.

The correspondent who raised this is running a business from home where he has a guaranteed speed of 0.3 Mbps but can get up to 5 Mbps if weather and other conditions are favourable. The prevailing speed at his premises is around 0.4 Mbps – a ‘decent’ broadband speed in the terms of the USO is a minimum of 10 Mbps. At a time when businesses and homes need a good internet service more than ever, your comments would be most welcome. Thank you.

Thank you, Catherine, for your response. I shall refer it across to the other Conversation for information.

A piece in the April 2020 Which? magazine says that “only a small number of properties will be eligible for the USO – Ofcom estimates it will be fewer than 155,000 homes and businesses”. If the number of premises with with inadequate speeds is so ‘small’, it is difficult to understand why the process and the performance of the USO is so cumbersome and time-consuming [especially given that many will be in clusters]. Equally it is hard to see why a decent service cannot be installed faster in the not-spots in order to pre-empt falling back on the USO. It appears to be a case of the best being the enemy of the good whereby rolling out gigabit-capable networks in selected areas is being given an excessive priority over bringing the entire country up to a decent level of service.

The Which? magazine item goes on to say that “all of these measures are a step in the right direction, but it’s essential that Ofcom ensures the processes are straightforward for those who need it” I couldn’t agree more and hope that Which? will now be pressing Ofcom to give that assurance and asking the Regulator to explain why the USO is so unsatisfactory..

John – The benefit of installing FTTP in areas with inadequate broadband is that this provides a long-term solution for service provision. If FTC is installed now, this will result in costly equipment being scrapped within a few years because it will not meet needs. Many in urban areas are already familiar with poor speeds at certain times of day because they are dependent on the copper cables in FTC systems. Put simply, we cannot afford to continue to install an obsolescent system.

I agree with you, Wavechange, and obviously it would be silly to dig trenches and run overhead cables for a low capacity service, but I got the impression that FTTP was being installed in areas that already have a good broadband service with FTTC while the more difficult areas are left very poorly served.

There are alternative and possibly cheaper technologies that might enable a quick fix for the reportedly small number of premises that cannot get a decent service [i.e.below 10 Mbps]; it would not be unreasonable to provide fibre to the cabinet in some places, and perhaps extend the reach of the cabinet in fibre to closer to the premises, but leave the domestic connection to be paid for by the owner.

According to April’s Which? magazine “only 57% of those with access to superfast broadband have signed up to it” and that “only 5% of those with access to speeds of 300 Mbps or more have signed up to these”. Given such low uptake it seems reasonable to question whether the priorities – giving rise to enormous capital expenditure – have been the right ones. This remark is not aimed at Openreach but at BEIS and Ofcom.

The government is going to be under considerable pressure to meet the USO, John. It is understandable that the home owner may have to contribute towards the cost, as they might if they wanted to be connected to mains gas or sewers, but the government should have made this clear at the time the commitment was made. If an FTC system exists then add more users if possible but if there is nothing more than copper phone lines it would make sense to go straight to FTTP.

Even if not many currently need fast internet access the facilities are available when they do, and apart from paying for a more expensive tariff, no change in the infrastructure will be needed. It’s the way that other countries are moving.

Kevin says:
6 April 2020

Gigabit consumer broadband is a red herring and completely irrelevant for most people, especially if they have a WiFi device connection. It’s the equivalant of building a 3 lane motorway to every house; you get in your car and as soon as you hit the shared road you are competing with everyone else, unless the main road is a 30 lane motorway…

Reliabilty and consistency is more important than speed, many rural areas have old cable which uses aluminium (it’s lighter and cheaper than copper) which is more prone to small fractures [than copper] which limits it’s ADSL performance.

Most business premises have copper to the desktop with shared fibre connecions to their network core like the FTC model, and I doubt even most hospitals have much more than a gigabit intranet/Internet connection.

Fibre may be necessary if there is a long distance to the consumer premises, but “Gigabit Fibre” is 95% marketing.

Hi Catherine, I realise you’re Openreach and not OffCom and are ‘distanced’ from BT but do you think it fair that the USO does not obligate BT / KCOM to provide a ‘decent’ service if there is another way for a customer to get it, regardless of the installation cost or data caps, so long as the monthly cost is below the £46.10 threshold and others on the same contract pay the same. So suppliers who can offer a ‘decent’ service can charge £1000s for set up and install and put ridiculously low data caps on and if you do end up going to a supplier who offers a ‘decent’ service you are not automatically allowed to exit any existing contract with a supplier who is not capable of giving a ‘decent’ service and you will get no help from anying to meet the costs?

Kevin – I’m not surprised that not many of those who can achieve high speeds choose to pay for them – see the figures provided by John.

I agree with what you say about reliability and in nearly four years of using FTTP, the only time I have problems is when a brief interruption in the electricity supply means a wait of several minutes while the router resets.

The installation of aluminium phone lines might have saved money but I wonder how much it cost in the long run to deal with high resistance connections and breakages.

I have been with Virgin cable broadbanc. Very reliable, I think I hardly noticed any impact with more people working from home.
I believe they had some delays on new instalations.

My internet hasn’t slowed down at all during the lockdown. Here’s a speed test result just now: https://www.speedtest.net/my-result/d/cf4b04a2-f55c-4e78-925c-f4444de647b5

It’s the same story at peak working-from-home times of the day.

I live in Troon, Ayrshire, a largish town of around 16,000 inhabitants, and yet our broadband connection is very poor with speeds of only around 2 Mb/sec. This hardly allows us to use services like BBC iPlayer, and now we are in lockdown and want to contact family, we find that Skype frequently fails and disconnects. Why can’t we get the upgrade to fibre in the local cabinet, just round the corner from our home? BT say they have no plans to upgrade that cabinet. We do have Virgin cable in the street but to join with them would double the cost of broadband for us, and as we are 70+ we have no interest in gaming or streaming films. The extra cost would be a drain on our pensions that we don’t need.