Reliable broadband? Certainly, sir. That’ll be £500,000

All David Roberts wanted was a broadband service fast enough for making uninterrupted video calls to his family and to watch All Creatures Great and Small without the picture constantly freezing.

Ali Hussain, Chief Money Reporter

He asked BT, Britain’s largest broadband provider, how much it would cost to upgrade the service to his home in the hamlet of Isel, near Cockermouth in Cumbria.

BT took a look and sent him a quote for the work: £502,586 to fix him up with a reliable connection.

Two other residents have been quoted similar amounts to access the basic broadband service all British homeowners are now entitled to under what is known as BT’s universal service obligation (USO).

“There is nothing universal about a scheme that requires people to pay £500,000,” said Roberts, 65, a retired lawyer. “These figures are wholly inconsistent and ridiculous. They seem designed to put people off.”

The experience of Roberts and his Lake District neighbours has highlighted a serious imbalance in the government’s plans to roll out superfast internet services to rural areas, a programme that has become a priority since the coronavirus forced so many routine activities online. Superfast internet access for all by 2025 was a key promise in the Tory manifesto last year.

Since March, BT has been obliged to offer upgraded services to anyone who asks and who is unable to receive a speed of at least a 10Mbps (megabits per second) — enough to watch Netflix and browse the internet without it constantly pausing to download.

Yet applicants from deeply rural areas — arguably the most in need of decent lockdown connections — are routinely quoted six-figure sums for installation, making the scheme useless for all but the wealthiest.

The average UK download speed is about 64Mbps. Roberts pays about £70 a month to BT for a service that stutters along at 1Mbps.

“It just buffers, so it’s impossible to watch,” he said. “A cousin wanted to send me a 20-minute video of a trip he had in Germany, but this took three hours to download.”

Roberts has also given up trying to do video calls with his family as the connection is so unreliable.

Under the USO scheme, launched on March 20, applicants can ask BT to conduct a survey to establish how much it might cost to connect their property to faster internet. If the cost is £3,400 or less, it will be covered by the company. Anything above this must be paid for by the applicant, leaving Roberts with a huge bill if he wants to upgrade.

BT blames the high cost on “challenging terrain such as rivers, forests, roads and railway lines” that make co-ordination “complex” in remote areas. It said the work required in such areas might involve “up to 30 people working over a number of months with heavy equipment to dig deep trenches”.

Isel has about 30 homes within the Lake District national park. Its residents are served by an ageing copper-wire service that often needs repairing. They receive only intermittent mobile phone signals.

Elaine Church, 60, another Isel resident, has seen her internet speeds drop as low as 0.2Mbps. She has also been quoted £502,000 for a faster connection. “I was naively optimistic that we might finally get something sorted for Isel,” said Church. “When I was told how much I must contribute, I just laughed. Who do they think can afford this?”

It hasn’t helped that the village of Blindcrake, 2½ miles away, has already been upgraded to full-fibre broadband as part of the national rollout — and residents did not have to pay a penny. “Why should it cost so much simply to connect us to a hub already installed there?” Church asked.

Lana Norman, 65, a retired gardener and farmer who lives in nearby Setmurthy, has no internet and was also quoted £500,000 for a connection. “Living with no internet and a poor mobile signal is not easy, especially with local bank branches closing,” she said. “When we use the mobile phone, you have to stand in the right place for it to work. I recently used it to watch my daughter at a sheep auction, but it’s intermittent. My mother, who is 91 and lives in Canada, has faster internet than me.”

Up to 590,000 UK properties do not receive the minimum 10Mbps speeds and so may be eligible for an upgrade under the USO. This is about 2% of all premises, according to Ofcom, the communications regulator. It has asked BT to address the question of six-figure installation costs “as a matter of urgency”.

The regulator said: “We’re concerned about the high amounts BT has quoted some people who request a broadband connection under the new universal service — particularly those who could share the connection costs with other homes in their area.”

BT acknowledged the costs under USO “can sometimes be significant”. Although separate estimates of £500,000 were provided to three Isel homes, the company said, it was looking at ways of sharing costs across the community. “We’re sorry for the disappointment the quotes have caused the residents,” BT added.

Other communities have raised funds to upgrade their own broadband, without the help of BT. Residents of Michaelston-y-Fedw, near Newport in Wales, clubbed together to boost speeds from about 8Mbps to 940Mbps, which is among the fastest in the UK.

The idea was hatched by David Schofield, 56, a retired repairer of electrical devices, and four other residents at a local pub. “We did everything ourselves, all the cabling, digging up the roads and connecting the cables to a Newport hub,” Schofield said.

They started digging in February 2018 and had their first connection in June that year. They now have about 240 customers who each pay about £30 a month. The freezing that afflicts Roberts’s television reception, however, is likely to extend deep into winter.