Virgin Media goes to court to get right to go gardening in County Durham
The expansion by Virgin Media under its Project Lightning project is delivering in many parts of the UK and the cable operators ambition was to deliver its network to an additional 16,000 premises in Durham by the end of 2019 but this target has been put in jeopardy by Durham County Council seeking a per metre levy for soft dig in grass verges that run alongside many of the roads that Virgin Media wants to deploy down.
Soft dig in verges is a lot cheaper generally than lifting pavements or cutting tarmac and re-instating and also faster, plus while a soft dig can look messy nature will usually take care of disturbed soil so that in a few months no-one is any the wiser.
It looks like negotiation has hit the buffers as Virgin Media is now going to court to seek a court imposed agreement, and this is only possible due to previous amendments to the Electronic Communications Code that were made in 2017 as part of the Governments plans to increase the roll-out of more broadband options.
We are disappointed to be taking this action against a Council with whom we initially had a good working relationship. By demanding money for land access Durham County Council is now putting up a broadband blockade to thousands of homes and businesses across the county.
This significant planned investment by Virgin Media will boost the local economy and provide consumers with a real alternative to BT’s Openreach network. With Virgin Media offering speeds 13 times faster than the local average, holding this fibre rollout to ransom over land fees risks leaving areas of Durham in the broadband slow lane. Durham has no basis for imposing any kind of a land levy in these circumstances and its attitude runs counter to that we have faced from more forward-thinking councils.
This issue goes wider than the city of Durham. Haggling over land access when we build in a new area slows down broadband rollout and deters investment. It is also an impediment to Government and Ofcom’s ambition for increased fibre rollout and network competition to BT. It’s time rhetoric was put into action to truly break down the barriers to building broadband.Tom Mockridge, Chief Executive of Virgin Media
County Durham has a very small presence from Virgin Media of 1.4% of premises currently and it appears that as some of this coverage only appeared in 2018 that it may be part of the 16,000 premises (16,000 represents around 6.5% of the premises in County Durham).
Virgin Media has had issues in other areas e.g. fines of £385,000 in Carlisle due to safety breaches with local press saying the roll-out left streets in chaos and it is possible that concerns over similar happening in Durham have influenced decision making there. Invariably it so often appears that problems arise from contractors, which is a big red flag over the ambitions for 50% of premises to have full fibre passing their boundary in 2015, i.e. all the attempts to reduce costs e.g. micro-trenching and other techniques will be quickly lost if contractors are not behaving to the highest standards for things like safety, re-instatment and avoiding upsetting locals.
We are sure that these issues are not unique to the UK, but things like the higher proportion of people who live in apartments in many countries and age of housing stock have an impact, for example in Spain which is often touted as place to emulate with around 70% full fibre coverage something like 65% of the population live in flats compared to approx 15% of the UK. Flats are important in the full fibre roll-outs, as for new build full fibre makes total sense and once you have the fibre in the building distribution is relatively pain free if the construction includes utility ducting.