Virgin Media to take council to court over '˜broadband blockade'
Cable operator Virgin Media has launched legal action against Durham County Council (DCC) claiming land charges are stalling fibre optic roll-out in the area.
The company is aiming to extend fibre to 16,000 properties in the county by 2019 but work stopped this year after the council demanded payment for access to grass verges running alongside public pathways.
For the first time, Virgin Media is aiming to put the updated Electronic Communications Code (ECC) to the test in order to obtain a court-imposed agreement to use the land.
This is subject to a tribunal balancing the impact of installation to Durham Council against the benefit to the future users of the broadband services.
Chief executive of Virgin Media, Tom Mockridge, said: “We’re 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.
“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.”
Head of planning and assets at Durham County Council, Stuart Timmiss, said he was “extremely disappointed” by the legal action and believed the council had “good constructive dialogue” with Virgin Media.
Earlier this year, the council served the company with an ‘improvement notice’ following complaints from residents about street works.
This ranged from “poor reinstatement that is yet to be resolved” and blocked drives to damage to property.
Mr Timmiss said Virgin Media were “proactive” in resolving issues, such as terminating contracts with contractors on site.
“These issues are not uncommon and we are not the only local authority who has been forced to take such action,” he said.
“Having said that, the roll-out of superfast broadband across our county is very important to us and we will continue to work with all providers in finding the best way to achieve this.”
He added: “Our work through the Digital Durham programme is rolling out fibre based broadband right across the county ensuring all households have access to superfast broadband.
“Providers such as Virgin Media only provide broadband services to certain areas within the county which they deem to be commercially viable.”
The ECC was amended in 2017 to support the growth of digital communication across the UK and aid broadband companies to access land for the installation of new networks.
While parties can reach agreement over rights to land use, rights can also be imposed under a Upper Tribunal (Land Chamber) which Virgin Media will be seeking.
Virgin Media’s chief executive, Mr Mockridge, added: “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.”
Chris Binding , Local Democracy Reporting Service