Ofcom cracks the whip on Openreach; demands rapid broadband repair

Ofcom's faster line repair ruling is full of good intentions, but will Openreach rise to the challenge?

Ofcom has demanded that BT's Openreach clean up its act and repair faulty broadband connections more quickly as well as set up new connections in a more timely fashion.

The UK telecommunications regulator's new rules demand that BT's Openreach — the firm that installs and maintains connections to BT’s network — improve its minimum standards over the next few years.

From July 1, Openreach must complete approximately 70 percent of faulty repairs within one to two working days of being notified, and this will rise to 80 percent by 2016. In addition, roughly half (55 percent) of new line requests have to be attended to within 12 working days — also due to rise to 80 percent in two years.

Often, if broadband fails, it can take at least five working days to have the problem seen to by an engineer and hopefully solved. (In my own long saga with broadband line faults, shameless begging and promises of a beer crate have enticed engineers to move more smartly on issues.)

If the telecommunications giant fails to meet these standards then it may face fines or sanctions, and the regulator says it will intervene again "if necessary."

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In order to track Openreach's performance, the company must also publish quarterly reports on its website from October at the latest, detailing "clear, meaningful and transparent information" about how long Openreach is taking to repair faults and install new lines, allowing consumers to keep track.

BT said:

Openreach has already stated its commitment to meet and exceed these service targets. Current performance data shows that Openreach is well on track to meet the targets outlined for this financial year. The recruitment of a further 1600 engineers will help us to achieve and exceed the standards set for subsequent years.

A BT engineer told ZDNet that the ruling made sense and was likely anticipated by Openreach, confirming that 1,600 new engineers are currently being hired by the telecommunications giant. However, Ofcom's targets might be out of reach unless more is done — as faults range in complexity and difficulty. Aging copper and utilities slicing through lines without notifying Openreach — such as "water utilities changing water meters" — are causing additional problems, and while Ofcom's intentions are focused on improving consumer experiences, targets might not be easy to achieve.

In addition to external problems, BT's Openreach may also be hampering itself internally. Several BT sources said the use of contractors by Openreach on a pay-per-job basis can mean that new lines are sometimes installed through the theft of other customer connections — wasting salaried engineer time as they must pick up the pieces and fix the issue afterwards.

However, there may be improvement on this front, as one BT engineer commented that there appear to be "fewer contractors around lately" — which may indicate a change in company culture and more promise in reaching Ofcom targets.

Ewan Taylor-Gibson, broadband expert at uSwitch.com, commented:

Today’s news that Ofcom is cracking the whip on Openreach is very welcome. Anyone who has waited for their broadband or phone to be fixed for weeks on end would have felt at the mercy of their provider, whilst paying for a service they couldn’t use. Broadband is increasingly considered an essential utility. With more and more people working from home, good broadband connectivity is no longer seen as a luxury, but vital for people’s livelihoods as well as education, and even has an effect on house prices.

Ofcom setting its sights on improving line repairs and installations is good news for consumers. Slashing the time it takes for this to be done should alleviate any worries people have about losing their connections while switching providers. It will also lay to rest customers' fears of living without internet connections while waiting for an engineer to repair faults with their lines.

Access to the web now is often viewed as crucial as access to water or electricity in many Western cities. However, Ofcom's ruling is unlikely to alleviate customer fears of being cut off without warning — instead, if BT's Openreach pulls through, at least it may not take as long to be reconnected.