The British communications regulator Ofcom has confirmed it has begun an investigation of BT and its charges to install or upgrade rural broadband connections.
According to the Guardian newspaper, the investigation over whether BT is overcharging for connections comes after reports of people receiving quotes as high as £100,000.
At the moment, Openreach (which runs most of the UK’s broadband network), has a legal obligation (the universal service obligation’ or USO) to ensure that homes in the UK receive a minimum speed of 10Mbps.
MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA) have previously warned the government is not doing enough to tackle the digital divide between rural and urban areas,
The 10Mbps goal is deemed to be the minimum for modern internet requirements such as watching Netflix or playing Fortnite and other online games.
BT must bear the cost, up to a maximum of £3,400 of meeting this USO.
But in extremely rural areas, the cost of getting a viable broadband connection can be higher….much much higher.
In such cases BT will still connect a property with broadband if the consumer is willing to pay the excess amount assessed by the carrier.
The Guardian newspaper highlighted a number of cases where BT reportedly demanded huge connection charges.
In one case, a customer in High Peak, Cheshire, was quoted £100,000 to upgrade. Another, in Woodbridge, Suffolk, was quoted £70,000 to connect to 10Mbps broadband.
Another customer, near Okehampton, Devon, when he was quoted £70,000, asked for a breakdown of costs and was told that no more information could be provided.
Other customers have reportedly been quoted figures as high £133,000 and even £152,000.
According to Ofcom, there is currently about 189,000 “forgotten homes” across the UK that do not have access to the basic 10Mbps service.
“The broadband universal service is a vital safety net that gives everyone the right to request a decent broadband connection,” a spokesman for the regulator told the Guardian. “And while properties in very remote locations will clearly be more expensive to connect, we’re concerned about how BT is calculating some of the quotes for people making connection requests – particularly where those costs could be split across a number of homes in an area.”
Ofcom is understood to have held talks with BT about the way the company has been calculating the quotes, but that no revision to its system has taken place.
“We are concerned that BT may not be complying with the regulatory conditions correctly where it assesses excess costs for a given connection,” Ofcom reportedly said. “This could result in some customers’ quote for a connection being higher than necessary.”
But BT has hit back and said it “strongly disagrees” with Ofcom’s assessment that it is failing to fairly fulfil its commitment to get a USO connection broadband to all UK households.
“We are obliged to send USO quotes to customers when they request them and appreciate that for the most remote properties some of these can be unaffordable,” BT reportedly said. “For some communities, even if they share the costs, the price will remain out of reach.”
BT added that there needs to be a new strategy to allow engineers to get broadband to the 0.5 percent of UK households that will remain prohibitively expensive to reach by traditional means.
“We need a new plan for the hardest to reach,” the spokesman reportedly said. “Options could include alternative technologies, such as satellite, as well as clarity on the government’s £5bn funding pledge for rural fibre.”