Zoom calls freeze, emails take forever to send and streaming a film on Netflix is nigh on impossible. You’d be forgiven for thinking these are the internet woes faced by families living in a remote rural village.
But Ashok Chhana, 63, and his wife Tara, 62, live in Harrow, North London — just four miles from Wembley Stadium.
Nearby properties sell for £1.2 million. Yet the couple’s average broadband speed is 500 times slower than the rate Government ministers have promised UK households by 2025.
Speed test: Every UK household has a legal right to demand a basic download speed of at least 10 Mbps
Every household has a legal right to demand a basic download speed of at least 10 megabits per second (Mbps). This is enough to browse the web, make a video call or watch a film.
Those with access to fibre broadband benefit from faster connections. A ‘fibre to the cabinet’ service, where slower copper wires link the cabinet to individual homes, typically provides 30 Mbps.
While the very fastest, known as ‘fibre to the premises’ or ‘full fibre’, where the copper line is replaced with a fibre optic cable, can achieve ‘gigabit-capable’ speeds of 1,000 Mbps — enough for five people to stream films on different devices at the same time.
This is the speed that ministers pledged to roll out to all UK homes and businesses by 2025. But last year, the target was watered down from 100 per cent to ‘at least 85 per cent’ of homes. Experts fear even this may be out of reach.
In a damning report by the Public Accounts Committee in January, MPs said the ‘challenging target’ increased the risk that the hardest-to-reach homes would be ‘struggling with slow broadband for many years to come’.
The report also raised concerns about a lack of ‘meaningful progress’ in making the necessary legislative changes to achieve the goal.
With four years until the deadline, three in five homes are still not gigabit-capable. And around 189,000 do not even get 10 Mbps.
‘The past 12 months have highlighted the importance of a good broadband connection, but many still struggle with poor connectivity,’ says Rocio Concha, of Which?. ‘It’s vital that as much as possible is done to ensure a quick rollout of these connections.’
Benchmark: ‘Full fibre’ broadband, can achieve ‘gigabit-capitable’ speeds of 1,000 Mbps – enough for five people to stream films on different devices at the same time
Like millions of us during the pandemic, Ashok and Tara are reliant on the internet to work, shop and keep in touch with loved ones. But their connection is so poor they cannot make a video call.
The couple’s neighbours, Brian Berg, 71, and his wife Lynne, 72, are also at their wits’ end with the sluggish service.
Brian, a music and film producer, is regularly forced to abandon work video calls. He says: ‘It’s embarrassing when you have to ask everyone to switch to a conference call just because your internet is so bad.’
With their broadband speed rarely reaching 3 Mbps, it’s no wonder Ashok and Brian struggle.
The wires and cables on which we’re reliant for good internet service are the responsibility of firms such as Openreach and Virgin Media, which rent the infrastructure to broadband providers, including Sky.
BT is spending £12 billion rolling out super-fast broadband to 20 million homes – and a fortnight ago it was given the green light by telecoms watchdog Ofcom to pass on the full cost to customers through bill hikes.
However, around a fifth of homes risk being left behind because they are not considered ‘commercially viable’.
Ministers have pledged £5 billion of funding to ensure these households do not miss out.
And two weeks ago, the Government announced that 500,000 homes and businesses in nine areas – Cambridgeshire, Cornwall, Cumbria, Dorset, Durham, Essex, Northumberland, South Tyneside and Tees Valley – will be the first to benefit.
But just £1.2 billion of the total £5 billion pot has been earmarked to be spent by 2025.
Ashok, who pays BT £30 a month for broadband, has been asking for years for Openreach to improve his connection.
Last summer, he was able to apply to the firm’s Community Fibre Partnerships (CFP) scheme, which allows communities to request an upgrade.
Slow progress: Households plagued by slow broadband need firms such as Openreach and Virgin Media to upgrade their networks
Openreach will not foot the whole bill, but residents can apply to the Government’s Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme to cover the costs.
The most recent scheme awarded households in areas with broadband speeds of less than 100 Mbps up to £1,500.
A new version, offering vouchers of the same value, will launch on April 8. But only those in the hardest-to-reach areas will be eligible.
This means those who missed the deadline could face costly bills. Shekhar Karia, 44, and his neighbours in Barnet, North London, may have to pay £394 each after Openreach failed to provide a final quote in time to apply under the old scheme.
They had been told it would take five weeks in December, but in February Openreach said it needed a further two months.
Ashok and his neighbours were also hit by delays. It took seven months to agree a deal and they have to wait a year for the work to be done – even though Openreach last year installed full-fibre at a block of flats a five-minute walk from their home.
Under the Universal Service Obligation, BT must pay up to £3,400 towards the cost of upgrading individual homes with speeds slower than 10 Mbps.
Yet, while this should cover the work in full, some families have faced hefty top-up bills if their properties require longer cables.
Pensioner John Simister was quoted between £70,000 and £100,000 to upgrade his home in Ellesmere, Shropshire, to a fibre connection last August.
Ofcom is currently investigating claims customers are being overcharged, which BT disputes.
A Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport spokesman says: ‘We’re on track for one of the fastest rollouts in Europe and for half of all households to have access to gigabit speeds by the end of this year.
To avoid wasting taxpayers’ money, our vouchers won’t be available in areas already due to be connected through planned industry rollout.’
An Openreach spokesman says: ‘Our Community Fibre Partnerships scheme is popular for those who aren’t prepared to wait for private or publicly funded broadband upgrades and so far we’ve delivered more than 1,700 projects.
‘These communities are typically in the toughest-to-reach parts of the UK from an engineering perspective, and our standard lead time is 12 months.’
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