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Customers try to upgrade to ‘superfast’ broadband – and end up with no internet at all

Several Muckle Roe residents have been beset with broadband problems this year. Photo: Brian Gray (www.briangrayphotography.com)

TELECOMS providers have again come under fire as customers in Sullom and Muckle Roe who attempted to upgrade to fibre-based “superfast” broadband have found themselves left without any internet at all for several weeks.

Sullom-based couple Stuart Balfour and Helen Robertson and their family are among those who have been wrongly informed that they could receive superior fibre-based speeds.

Because the BDUK programme is only installing fibre as far as cabinets, data still has to travel along copper wires to reach people’s homes – meaning the further away people live, the slower the connection they will actually receive.

Helen said they had been receiving speeds of around 0.5Mbps – regulator Ofcom says the basic minimum people need now is 10Mbps – on ADSL broadband prior to Christmas. But in January and February the service got “really, really bad – it was off more than it was on”.

After being told they could upgrade to fibre broadband, they “signed up straight away”, although she had to go to her mum’s house in Lerwick to send the email to provider Plusnet because their internet was so bad.

That service was supposed to start on 16 February and was eventually connected on 3 March. She estimates they might have had “seven to eight hours’ worth of broadband since then” and none at all since 15 March.

Their complaint has been “escalated” but “it just means they email more frequently to tell us they’re postponing again!” The latest resolution date they have been given is 27 April.

Helen said individual members of staff had been helpful, but she felt the attitude of BT – which now owns Plusnet – was problematic.

“We’re a rural backwater and the reality is no company is going to lay anything to two or three dozen houses,” she said. “I think it’s wrong of the Scottish Government to pretend that it’s anything other.”

While on one hand she accepts it might seem like a “first world problem”, the reality is that having reliable internet access is now essential to fully participating in society.

“It’s cost me an absolute fortune in mobile data. We’ve got four bairns, Stuart is running businesses, I’m self employed. We have to go and use Stuart’s mum’s computer to send emails, I’m trying to do a college course, the bairns have got no internet to do their homework.”

She added that Stuart had missed their daughter’s ninth birthday party to attend Saturday’s Northern Isles Digital Forum meeting “and the BT guy wasn’t even there, so that was a bit disappointing”.

A Plusnet spokeswoman responded: “The customer was able to order fibre as our supplier’s records stated it would be available, but unfortunately the property is too far away from the cabinet. 

“We have raised this with them and are working closely with them to move it back to ADSL as quickly as possible. We’re sorry for any inconvenience caused. Once the customer is satisfied the issue is resolved we will discuss compensation and a gesture of goodwill.”

Maree Hay of the Northmavine Community Development Company (NCDC) said the problem had affected customers in Sullom and Muckle Roe – both settlements lying a considerable distance from the Brae fibre cabinet.

“If you go on the HIE broadband checker and you put in your phone number or address, it’ll tell you whether you’re going to get broadband,” she said. “These customers did that, it said you are now connected to the cabinet – contact us to upgrade.

“But the cabinet is in Brae, and you’re outwith the distance. Anything after 2km, you’ve got no chance.”

She urged BT, Openreach and HIE to “sort out your broadband checker, folk are being fed false information”.

Maree said folk had spent “days, weeks, months constantly speaking to BT staff, getting the square root of nowhere, going to the ombudsman, then getting the square root of nowhere again”.

“This is a real situation but it’s not being classed as that by BT, and it’s really disappointing that they’re not here.”

Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said he has begun to doubt whether it is even worth having online checkers because they repeatedly prove to be unreliable. 

People being told they could receive fibre despite living several kilometres from an exchange “seems to be a perennial problem” in rural areas, the MSP said.

“Collectively Maree Hay and I are pressing BT very hard on this,” he added.

A BT spokeswoman said the company was aware of “three individual cases in the Brae area where people were able to order a fibre service but, due to their premises being more than 5km from the cabinet, this was not able to be provided”.

“We’ve made changes to our records to prevent any recurrence and apologise for the difficulties,” she said. “I understand a standard broadband service has now been restored for one customer and we’re in the process of migrating back the other two from fibre to ADSL.

“Unfortunately, this has proved problematic. We’re sorry for the delay.”

She said customers could discuss compensation once service was restored, and “both BT and Plusnet have confirmed that their customers will be refunded for their downtime… and they’ll agree a goodwill gesture in addition.”

The spokeswoman also claimed that “the agenda for this particular session did not require BT attendance and the Digital Forum organisers were aware of that a couple of months ago”.

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