/ Technology

Updated: Change is on the way for broadband and phone providers

Fibre broadband

Ofcom has published the conclusions from its first strategic review of the communications sector in 10 years. And with it comes a win on something we talked about only yesterday…

A lot has changed in the past 10 years, in both the way we use communication services as well as the tech we own. Many of us now have smartphones and access to superfast broadband, enriching our lives with new ways to communicate and access content.

However, it’d be wrong to say it’s all been plain sailing. It’s often difficult to identify the best broadband or phone deals; reliable and fast broadband is still a dream for many; mobile coverage can be poor; and it’s tricky to switch providers. This has put our trust and satisfaction with broadband and mobile providers at a similar low level to that of the banks and energy companies.

So, it was definitely time for change. And so we were delighted that Ofcom announced its Strategic Review of Digital Communications last year. We’ve been feeding into the review, including sharing your views, in order to highlight the need for standards and services to improve. So what’s been announced?

Changes for BT Openreach

Ofcom has announced tighter standards on the performance of Openreach, the division of BT that maintains the UK’s phone and broadband network, and has called for the company to be more independent from BT.

The regulator has also advised BT to open up its Openreach network to allow competitors to connect their own fibre networks directly into homes. This will give you a greater choice of providers, with less reliance on Openreach to roll-out superfast broadband to your house.

Automatic compensation for loss of service

On top of these improvements to the service you’ll get from your broadband and mobile providers, we’ve also achieved a win on something we talked about yesterday.

Ofcom said it intends to introduce automatic compensation for when things go wrong with your broadband, landline or mobile. You won’t have to battle with getting compensation yourself; instead you’ll receive automatic refunds for any loss or reduction in service. Ofcom will consult on this proposal this year.

There were also announcements on providers improving broadband and mobile coverage, as well as calls for providers to give clearer information on the price and quality of the services you’re getting.

Reforms must come in soon

So there are some very promising reforms in there, which should raise standards across the industry. But Ofcom needs to implement them quickly, hold providers to account and ensure that Openreach genuinely improves the service for customers who’ve been let down for too long.

We’ll be holding Ofcom to account to make sure your expectations are understood and included in these proposals.

What do you think about the proposals Ofcom announced today? Which announcement do you think will make the most difference to you?

Update 19 July 2016 – The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee has found that BT is failing to invest in Openreach, its super-fast broadband network.

According to the report BT ‘appears to be deliberately investing in higher-risk, higher-return assets such as media properties, and not investing in profitable lower-risk infrastructure and services through Openreach’.

The Committee has estimated under-investment to be potentially hundreds of millions of pounds each year. MPs have warned that the telecoms giant should be forced to split off from Openreach unless it addresses the significant under-investment and poor service.

Our Director of Policy and Campaigns, Alex Neill said:

‘We welcome today’s Committee report. It’s clear that Ofcom must move quickly to make sure Openreach genuinely improves service for customers who have been let down for too long.

‘People now see telecoms as an essential service so Ofcom must work with the industry to raise standards, with faster, more reliable broadband and automatic compensation for consumers when things go wrong.’


This is a good interim outcome. These are the initial conclusions from the strategic review and, depending on the industry’s response, there could be further developments.

I was pleased to see that common sense had at last prevailed over the unlocking of access to BT’s huge network of cable ducts and overhead installations. I feared we were approaching a situation whereby other service providers would have to start digging up the roads and pavements again to lay a parallel network of facilities with intermediate cabinets and distribution boxes. When a lot of the BT underground infrastructure was modernised it was designed primarily for thick multi-core copper cable and huge surplus capacity was built in. I have a tendency to peer into openings in the footway and I have seen nine and twelve tube ductwork with just three tubes carrying cables. Modern fibre cabling can carry a vast amount of simultaneous traffic through a much smaller diameter of cable so there is a huge untapped resource beneath our feet in towns and cities as well as in many rural areas between exchanges and other nodes. There is also a microwave network and satellite transmission carrying trunk traffic so it is a good idea to get this installed local distribution capacity into more economic use.

The question of whether Openreach should be detached from BT and made fully independent has been shelved for now but it is clearly still on the agenda if the directed reforms to its governance do not bear fruit. While it is possible for Openreach to continue trading as an autonomous subsidiary under the BT Group umbrella, I believe it is quite likely that BT would wish to shed this arm in due course, especially if the demands of the other ISP’s continue to conflict with BT’s interests and objectives. The important point would be to put in place some statutory competition protection from it being bought up by another telecoms provider. For the foreseeable future the UK’s telecoms infrastructure has strategic national importance.

Ofcom has high expectations of superfast broadband coverage with 95% of the UK having access by the end of 2017 with a safety-net minimum of 10 Mbit/s “by 2020″ [does that mean what it says or ‘by the end of 2020”?]. Having access to superfast broadband is one thing but being able to afford it is another, of course, but it should at least enable the lowest minimum speeds on stepped tariffs to be higher.

Automatic compensation for service interruption and other things that can “go wrong” is a good move and ought to provide an incentive for providers to maintain the reliability of their networks. Checking the accuracy of the compensation might be tricky though: the recent Which? Conversation on the misuse of the speaking clock service for line tests followed by denial when challenged by customers who have been charged is a warning.

richard says:
26 February 2016

I would just like to add to your comments. I agree that the modern cabling does not require so much space. Having travelled to many parts of the world I believe we should be aiming to deliver speeds of MIn 200mbps . Korea , Japan are exceeding this in many cities but this is there min. Why do we compare ourselves with EUROPE which in general is below average. I personally believe that OPENREACH should be taken back into state ownership and for them to deliver a min 200mbps and then more . If UK Government want us to be the entrepreneurs in the modern world give us the tools eg 200mbps. Put the GREAT back into Britain. The challenge to the CEO is stop giving us mediocrity deliver excellence.

Chris says:
26 February 2016

I agree with most of what you say however I cannot see what benefit would be derived from The Government taking custody.

The goverment wishes to take over the network because of security. So much of the exchange equipment has been made in China and has embedded software that allows others to see the traffic being passed. This compromises national security as our leaders use the network.

A direct link to Ofcom’s report might be useful – http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/telecoms/policy/digital-comms-review/DCR-statement.pdf
Which?’s summaries such as http://www.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/problem/my-broadband-service-is-often-interrupted-what-can-i-do might be more useful if they were dated, to ensure we are looking at current, not past, reviews (sorry if it is, I couldn’t see it).

We often question how technology misses those who lack the money, knowledge, capability, equipment to take advantage of it. How many are not capable of using on-line services, like banking, tax? Would the heavy investment, where it is subsidised, not be better spent on making services more easily available to these people. Are there perhaps more important priorities than making it easier to watch films and tv? I just wonder whether we keep our priorities under proper scrutiny.

As a Virgin Media subscriber I am fortunate enough to have the fastest broadband speed generally available in the UK and, in fairness, it rarely ‘goes down’, however there is one aspect of their service which lets them down badly and that is their email application. Up to September last year, this was handled by Google and everything was fine. Then the two companies parted company and Virgin imposed on us an email application which is simply unfit for purpose in that it is IMPOSSIBLE to block spam email so that inboxes are flooded with spam, much of it offering ‘favours’ by Eastern European sex workers. Virgin say we should be patient until their ‘filters learn how to handle the spam’ and that email is, after all a free service that they provide!!! Surely, after five months, the Regulator should be able to impose some sanction on Virgin to ensure adequate resources are directed to ensure this problem is obviated? If not, when is it likely that Ofcom will seek the ability to do so?

You are under no obligation to stick with the free email service provided by Virgin. You should still be able to use Gmail. I can. I’m no longer a fan of gmail though since they started deciding what messages I want to see.

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That, indeed, is the problem. Gmail does not deliver every email I want to read, neither does Outlook and I am obliged to check Virgin Webmail only to be assailed by the problem described above.

Rab Jenkins
I Have the same problem i am getting loads of American emails and cant stop them this has been going on for months now

I absolutely agree with you about the Virgin Media email platform. It is dreadful. It is slow to load and cumbersome to use and by far the worst I have experienced.
In parallel to Virgin mail I use Microsoft Live Mail which is a derivative of Outlook. I seem only to receive email on that platform when it is open. I contacted Virgin support and they denied directing away from Outlook.

it would have been better if Offcom made open reach allow other companies to use their network,rather than “advising” them to do it,lmho

As far as I know, BT have allowed other operators to make use of their tunnels and poles since 2009 ( or so it was reported on Radio 4 this morning).

Sharon Smith, CEO of Ofcom, was challenged on that very point on Channel 4 News on Thursday evening [24/02/16]. She said that although that was technically the case, from the numerous complaints that Ofcom had received from alternative telecom providers, it was clear that BT had not been willing to cooperate over access to its infrastructure. They had not provided access when the companies wanted it, did not give them basic information on tunnel or duct routes and installations, would not provide maps of the services, and generally treated the unbundling requirement as an interference in their operations.

Sometimes passive resistance and delaying tactics are the worst kinds of obstruction. Obviously BT still had the nationalised industry monopoly culture even though they were by then a private company. There must be remnants of that attitude today that have forced Ofcom to make directions over open access and to uncouple the strategic elements of the Openreach business from the rest of BT.

This is good news for competition and for consumers. I wish other Regulators would stand up to the industries they supervise instead of cosying up to them.

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If I might say so I think it’s BT that has cherry-picked the hotspots. If the other service providers are not to be allowed to reach out into further territory what is the alternative? Wait until BT gets there in its own time? Anyway I thought the government, the county councils, and the local enterprise partnerships were contributing to the extension of superfast broadband into remote or difficult areas. Living in a rural area where there are a lot of small businesses and farmsteads with low speed broadband I can understand their frustration at BT’s slow progress and must be welcoming this news which opens up the opportunity for more competition.

The rest of Sharon White’s interview was not strictly relevant to this particular issue but was very encouraging in terms of the UK’s prospects for connectivity and sophisticated communication technology. Since she recently contributed a Conversation to this site I expect the CEO takes an interest in these discussions and I hope she takes note of your views as a strong warning of what to avoid.

I think its is Sharon White who is the CEO, not Sharon Smith

Thanks John

That was an unfortunate error and I don’t know why I wrote “Smith” instead of “White”. I got her name right in my following comment though.

David says:
14 April 2016

i dont think the majority of the UK residents want out of the EU but there will be a vote soon enough to settle that. I work for an LLU provider myself and i can honestly say i feel like i should also be paid by openreach aswell as i spend most of my time apologising on their behalf for engineers not turning up and closing trouble reports or the extreme opposite of having to send 3 or 4 of the SAME type of engineers to get issues rectified

and then when you call the SMC you get hit with pre-written robotic responses and they take zero ownership (except once)

I am not saying that we do not make mistakes nor are we above them. when people are involved sometimes people can be the problem however more of my daily conversations are for issues which the ownership should lie with openreach and not us

simple fact of the matter is we do not have access to the cabinets and exchanges across the country for us to train and use our own engineers on the infrastructure to give a consistent experience for our customers – we are all at the mercy of openreach

between engineers not turning up or having to send 3 or 4 LL14’s to correct issues has an impact on the provider with our customers. customers come to us (and others who arent BT) and place the blame on us as we

David says:
14 April 2016

I should probably add a bit about how OR froze everyone out of their Fibre development and even further so by developing areas as FTTP only which freezes us and the other LLU providers out of providing any kind of service to those customers

any customer who is using an LLU provider for fibre is really just using a rebranded BT product using BT’s equipment and therefore is completely dependant on their engineers

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Should do something about the price that is charged on landlines calls that have to come with broadband

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Rural comunities still pay the most and get by far
the worst service. Poor speed, dropout, lies and rip off. Nothing is ever done, despite all the empty promises. Yet the places that already have good speed seem to be constantly getting upgraded. Offcom should address this! But they won’t

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Peter Manuel says:
26 February 2016

Well I live in the centre of london and am lucky to get 2Mbs. No cable network available in the area. Only option for this part of the city advised on government superspeed broadband site is mobile broadband!
Recent tv programme on “Silicon Roundabout” described appalling service in Shoreditch just north of the City, IT firms must courier their uploads to better service in the suburbs. Its not just country yokels who get an abysmal service.
It is BT that is failing in this city, they own and service the infrastructure. No Virgin service available and who wants SKY?

A step in the right direction but it should go further.

Simply saying speed not good enough is unclear.

There should be a speed lower than which it cannot go.

I recently had a speed that even BTs own site said internet speed to slow to open site!

Fibre must be available to all. BT must accept than easy to install towns have to compensate for the more difficult areas such as in a countyside.

Recently, on Open Reach’ website, it gave a timescale of “within 9 months” for most houses in my village. We have now found out that is not quite correct . Very misleading and disappointing.

Robert says:
26 February 2016

This is nonsense. The devil will be in the detail. Its simply smoke and mirrors

I don’t live in a rural area but in new housing, broadband is horrendous as the exchange cannot cope with all the extra demand, it’s been like it for over 5 years and BT don’t seem interested in improving it as I guess it needs major investment that they are not prepared to make, and I cannot see why anyone else would be interested in making this investment either. It would have made sense to lay the cabling as the building work progressed, but nobody thought of that! I just can’t see any improved expected in the near future, so I guess I will have to put up with the constant dropping out of the service.

I do not see how this will improve anything for those outside the main conurbations.

Automatic compensation for when things go wrong!! It is hard enough to get BT to admit responsibility for line/Hub faults. They should pay compensation or reduce line/internet charges for anyone receiving less than what is deemed to be a sufficient speed for today’s users.

Ofcom, again, want to appear to be doing something but, as usual, all they achieve is looking after the large companies, without a care for the consumer.

still waiting for Openreach to connect to our village on the North Wales borders, it has reached the substation. Do they advise you when its ready to connect to your home, and then will your ISP arrange a new router and fee?

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BT could have promoted a private Parliamentary bill to give it the powers it needs. Private corporations do this all the time for major installations. I am not so sure that BT and other licensed service providers haven’t inherited powers under the Telecommunications Acts. Certainly the cable companies had statutory powers once they were licensed by the [then] Cable Authority.

John Dale says:
26 February 2016

This is a good form of progress.Over the past month I have lost TalkTalk service for approaching 2 weeks which is very disruptive to work commitments. Constant phoning to Indian callcentres gets promises of Openreach visits,when they don`t happen all you get is scripted apologies and rearrangements. A very bad service with no discernible compensation for no service. TalkTalk are very good at taking the money but very bad at delivering the service that it pays for. Compensation should be for the actual losses/extra costs incurred and not the token offer to shut the complainant up.

Chris Ridler says:
26 February 2016

With all the new houses to be built I think that there should be a mandatory requirement for developers to include Fiberoptic cabling into all new houses. This will begin to draw a line under this problem.
At the Ground work stage of any development it would only cost peanuts to do, and save a lot of retro work which will take forever.

This has been normal practice for edge-of-town developments and major schemes for some years now but it might be difficult to do it for infill sites where there is no compatible infrastructure to which to connect, but certainly passive provision could be made so that fibre can be installed as soon as the rest of the area is upgraded.

Alan Dale says:
26 February 2016

I would have hoped that BT would have been forced to stop charging extra for payment from the poorest and most vulnerable section of the community (i.e. those who do not have a bank account or wish to control their bank accounts by not using Direct Debits). I find the argument about speed irrelevant but reliability is important. I use sky for broadband and landline and find them extremely reliable and very helpful in case of difficulties.

Great if you can get sky – lucky you. Most of us in the country cannot even dream of sky.

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BTOR has a bureaucracy that fails to deal with intermittent faults. The managers, usually accountants or lawyers, fail to understand how a technician cannot repair an intermittent fault unless he is there to witness it. They send a technician out when it suits them, and if the fault occurs in the rain and it is sunny when the technician attends, then there is no fault to fix. All he does is to book another visit, and if that doesn’t hit a rainy day, the process repeats. Some customers have been charged hundreds of pounds (+VAT) if there is no fault on the sunny day. Obviously the beneficiary of the VAT isn’t going to stir itself to rectify this either.

Colin says:
26 February 2016

With BT being the parent company when do you think Open Reach will do anything to help the competition?

26 February 2016

To facilitate switching mobile phone providers all phones should be available unlocked without extra charge

pete ward says:
26 February 2016

This will do absolutely NOTHING for people living in the countryside, who are a mile from the nearest road, and 2 miles from the nearest ‘box’. The only people to benefit are the 15 year old unemployed single mums with 4 kids who get to watch high speed free film downloads. People like us with businesses, rural based, keep getting fobbed off with crappy satellite offers that everyone says don’t work any faster anyway. We have 0.4Mb download, and a similar upload speed. We would be DELIGHTED is we got a 5Mb speed – instead, the rest of the country are arguing about what compensation they get if their download drops below 200 Mb or something. Most people havent a clue. Interestingly, our local village now has high speed fibre broadband. They are now trying to pursuade people to use it – only about 5% take up so far – waste of time. The latest ofcom rubbish does NOT deal with this situation.

“The only people to benefit are the 15 year old unemployed single mums with 4 kids who get to watch high speed free film downloads…”

LOL Daily Mail reader, perchance..?

Classic stuff.

Peter D says:
26 February 2016

Force Open Reach away from BT because BT will always have control over standard lines.