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Failure to connect: how Openreach left a home without a vital lifeline

<span>Openreach manages the network on behalf of telecoms companies, but says the work is often complicated.</span><span>Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images</span>
Openreach manages the network on behalf of telecoms companies, but says the work is often complicated.Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

John Burningham’s phone line became a lifeline after he went through brain surgery and spent five weeks in hospital. Complications from the treatment meant his wife needed to call 999 after his release.

So when both his broadband and landline phone weren’t working, he was consumed with anxiety.

“It got to the point where every time I walked past the phone, I was picking it up to see if there was a dialling tone. I’m 82 and not that well,” he says.

“We always needed a phone available as my wife has had to call 999 a couple of times in the past, and I have ended up in hospital. I was thinking: ‘What could we do? We haven’t got a phone.’ It caused a lot of anxiety.”


Burningham, who lives in Holt in Norfolk, was alerted to the problem last November when his broadband stopped working, and a relative told him that his phone always seemed engaged. It was not until last month that the service was fully restored.

His son, Mark, has criticised Openreach – which manages the broadband network on behalf of telecoms companies such as Sky, BT and TalkTalk – for what he says was a lack of urgency in getting the issues resolved.

And some industry commentators have been critical of the contractor for what they claim is widespread poor customer service.

Last year, a couple in Sussex complained about delays of nine months in getting broadband supplied to their home. And the Observer has previously reported the case of a 75-year-old who was left offline for months due to a series of errors.

Mark says his father has an induction loop fitted to his phone due to his poor hearing. Not having that, coupled with the poor mobile signal in the area, meant he became very stressed and unable to sleep due to the worry.

‘Nothing you can do’

Broadband Savvy, a site which ­analyses broadband services, reports that it is regularly contacted by people who have been left without a service for long periods due to problems related to Openreach.

Its founder, Tom Paton, says some customers report instances of work not being completed after it is booked.

“The customer gets stuck in a cycle of trying to book Openreach appointments through their internet service provider, only for them to be missed or pushed back.

“Sometimes an engineer arrives, but the job is more complicated than they thought it would be, and they can’t complete the work on the day,” he says.

“The customer then has to spend weeks trying to arrange a new appointment, which is extremely difficult, given consumers cannot contact Openreach directly, and broadband providers often fail to liaise with it effectively.”

Paton says consumers often say the most frustrating thing is a lack of communication. “When these issues occur, the customer is often left with no idea why they can’t get connected, or when they can expect to get online. Sometimes Openreach and the ISP will each blame each other for the delay, and there is nothing the customer can do to get either party to act.”

Openreach apologised to Burningham for the time it took to get his phone service working, saying it had faced delays in closing off the road to carry out the work.

“We’re sorry for any distress caused due to the time taken to get his phone service up and running again,” it says. “After investigating the issue with his phone line, we uncovered a number of faults in the cabling which would need replacing with around 100 metres of new underground cable. This involved a significant amount of complex and time-consuming dig work.”

Plusnet, Burningham’s internet service provider, also apologised, saying it was a “complex fault” and that its staff had been in contact with him.

Responding to allegations of poor service by Broadband Savvy, Openreach says it is “not in a position to address some of the apparent issues without direct evidence”.

“We monitor our service performance closely, and this doesn’t reflect the vast majority of feedback we get from customers,” it says.

“We’re also missing fewer appointments than at virtually any time in our history – but our engineers complete tens of thousands of customer visits every week and, unfortunately, things can occasionally go wrong.

“We also complete more than 30,000 new full fibre broadband orders every week successfully, but we do face some challenges that can cause delays, such as needing permission to close roads or enter private property.

“We know there’s always room for improvement, and we regularly contact customers to understand how we can do things even better.”

Mobile options

Paton says that another way for consumers to get online is through 4G and 5G broadband hubs, which will connect to the internet in the same way that smartphones do, without the need to connect through cabling.

“But this is far from a perfect solution,” he says. “Not everyone has a good mobile signal at home, wireless internet has higher latency – time lag – than fibre, and you can’t normally get a landline service using these alternative types of connections.”

Virgin Media O2, which does not use Openreach, last month announced that it was aiming to directly challenge the contractor with a new company that will offer its own network to other ISPs.