Outage shows how broadband problems are a fact of life

6 July 2017   By Samantha Smith

BROADBAND providers on the Openreach network are currently experiencing outages in the South East of England, leaving thousands of customers without an internet connection.

fibre broadband optics
Credit: alphaspirit.it/Shutterstock.com

The problems first arose for Sky, TalkTalk and BT customers on Wednesday afternoon, after a breakage in a core fibre optic cable was discovered in East Sussex.

However, since then six other breaks in the South East have been confirmed, underlining the severity of the problem, and helping to explain just why problems are still ongoing as of the time of writing.

However, while this might appear to give customers on rival networks cause to gloat, such outages are common to almost all networks, suggesting that, perhaps, the reliability of broadband services will just never be something anyone can fully guarantee.


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It initially wasn't clear as to what exactly caused the breakages, with a variety of likely candidates being mooted as the culprit, from vandals toying with the cables to construction workers being a little gung-ho with their JCBs.

Later, however, it emerged that fence posts - yes, fence posts - were responsible, apparently for all seven breaks.

As explained by TalkTalk's Dido Harding, "Openreach engineers identified cables that had been damaged by a fence post yesterday. Three cables have been replaced earlier this morning and work continues to connect them."

As implausible as it sounded, this story was repeated by Sky, with a spokesperson saying, "Third party installation of fence posts had caused multiple fibre cable breaks."

Well, as reassuring as it might be to have an explanation of the reasons for the disruption, it unfortunately doesn't change the fact that many customers are still without a reliable broadband connection, as exemplified by the tweets below:

The tweet above raises a highly relevant question, which is that of whether customers who experience disruptions to service are entitled to compensation.

The short answer to this is that, while they aren't entitled to a full refund on their monthly bill, they have the right to ask their provider for compensation for the days they lack a service.

And as this latest map from the Down Detector website would suggest, there may be a few Sky customers, for example, in line for such compensation:

Downtime map

Source: downdetector.co.uk

Other networks

At the moment, the expectation is that most services will be restored by this evening, although given that the situation is ongoing there's no guarantee of this.

Yet what the whole episode offers a timely reminder of is that there's also no guarantee in general of a completely reliable broadband service.

For example, in May it was reported that Virgin Media customers were experiencing similar outages, and that some had done so on and off since the beginning of the year.

In fact, as reports of the latest Openreach-related outage keep coming in, the Down Detector website also reveals that Virgin Media are having new issues of their own with lapses in service:

Virgin downtime

Source: downdetector.co.uk

This goes to show that problems with broadband disruptions aren't restricted to any particular providers, and are common to the vast majority of them. As such, the latest wave of outages isn't really news, but rather an amplification of what goes on more often than most providers care to admit.

Fact of life

On the one hand, this underlines the need for Ofcom to follow through with their proposals to introduce automatic compensation across the board, so that ISPs will be motivated to resolve problems as soon as they arise, or perhaps even preemptively.

Yet on the other, it underlines the specific nature of broadband and the broadband industry.

Namely, while broadband is sold as a consumer item and expected to deliver customer satisfaction in the same dependable way as an iPhone, television or car, it is in fact infrastructure.

And like other parts of the UK's infrastructure - such as the railways and the roads - its reliability is bound up with the environment in which its cables and ducts are laid.

Because of this, it's liable to regional variations in performance, to interference and to losses of service, and no amount of dressing it up as a standardised product will change this.

And ultimately, even though this suggests that occasional broadband unreliability might be fact of life, it does at least signal once again that automatic compensation has to be introduced. Because this would be at least one thing the industry could guarantee their customers.

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