Computer says “NO!“. Sometimes finding out whether or not you can order an FTTC based “fibre broadband” service on BTOpenreach’s national UK network is harder than it should be. ISPreview.co.uk takes a look at some of the most common issues that might occur when checking for service availability.
Like it or not there are bound to be a few errors, mistakes and oversights that creep into Openreach’s Searchable Database of some 30 million lines / premises or the related BT Wholesale Checker, which can sometimes cause confusion when people start to depend upon them as part of making major decisions, such as moving house.
As a general rule you should always try to test for service availability by using the property’s Phone Number first, which is usually the most accurate check. Failing that you could try the neighbours phone number, so long as it’s in the same building or right next door as this may be a close match (make sure to ask their permission too).
The alternative is to use a Full Address Check, which is also quite accurate, although these can sometimes fail due to small differences in how you write the house name, number or other details (don’t be afraid to try a few variations as some addresses can be a bit quirky).
The least accurate method is to use a Postcode Check, which is unreliable because the results can cover a wide area that may not accurately reflect local infrastructure for your specific property. It’s wise not to make any final judgements about availability or line performance based purely on a postcode check.
Other than those there are still plenty of reasons why a checker might inform you that the service is “Available” or “Accepting Orders“, only for you to learn later that it cannot in fact be ordered or installed. Some of the most annoying reasons, albeit not the only reasons, that people have reported to us over the years have been listed below.
1. Database confusion over cabinets
Recently we had a case where one of our Welsh readers, who has in the past always been connected to a distant Street Cabinet (PCP no. 6), was told by an ISP checker that he could order FTTC, albeit via a new and much closer cabinet no. 13. Other checkers also returned the same result as related databases are often shared from the same source.
However despite multiple attempts he was not able to get the service installed and even Openreach’s own engineers appeared to be stumped. When an engineer turned up at Cabinet no.13 they would find that there was no physical copper line going back to the customer’s property and so the cycle continued.
After some investigation it transpired that he was right on the border in a community that had previously been catered for by Exchange Only Lines (EOL), although part of the area had been upgraded to support FTTC via a complex network rearrangement and for some reason this was either confusing the database or engineers. In any case after three failed installation attempts, all of which initially promised to correct the issue, the customer eventually gave up.
2. Database error – out of sync “availability” status
Sometimes a street cabinet goes live (becomes “available” for new orders) only for Openreach to later discover an unexpected problem and disable it again until resolved. Unfortunately this does seem to occasionally result in some databases becoming slightly out of sync with what’s happening on the ground and as a result consumers may not realise that the service cannot be ordered or that existing orders could be unexpectedly delayed or stopped.
3. Poor estimate of speed vs availability
The databases used by ISPs are largely based upon estimated predictions of copper line performance and live experiences, but sometimes if you live right at the edges of coverage – particularly if it’s a property that hasn’t had FTTC before – then the service may be marked as “available” and yet an engineer might later discover that you would not be able to get a working connection (i.e. the line might not meet basic quality criteria). As such the install could be rejected, unless the engineer can find an easy fix.
Unfortunately issues like this can’t always be predicted by checkers or ISPs and sometimes they only become apparent once an engineer is on-site at your cabinet to connect the service. In other cases the issue may be caused by poor home wiring or some other unusual problem, which might only be resolved through later and often more expensive engineer investigations.
4. Street cabinet lacks capacity
Every new FTTC cabinet that gets built will have a limited capacity for taking on new connections. The capacity of a cabinet will vary from place to place, although those constructed in busy / urban areas can often handle up to nearly 300 lines each.
Sometimes these cabinets will fill up faster than expected (example) and that can result in a situation where the service may technically exist in the area, yet sadly you might not be able to order it until Openreach has expanded the cabinet’s capacity or built an additional cabinet. The latter can take a long time and that’s assuming they choose to expand it at all.
5. The new build homes nightmare
One of the most notorious problems with buying a new home is the fact that the address you receive is so new that it isn’t widely recognised (i.e. has yet to propagate to various databases). Problems like this usually fix themselves, but it can often take several months and meanwhile getting any new services ordered could require extra effort.
In these cases it’s often best to call a provider and speak with somebody directly because the ISP’s online ordering systems may struggle if they can’t identify your address. Similarly you may have trouble confirming whether or not your property can even get an FTTC connection, which adds an extra layer of difficulty (you could try asking Openreach directly to confirm).
As a rule it’s wise to discuss these things with the property developer before you buy and if they do promise a “fibre” based service then try to get it confirmed in writing. We’d also recommend confirming which services will be available and how long they take to install. Some developments may have their own unique fibre optic (FTTH/P) solution, which won’t show up in any checkers.
Most of the issues above are rare and often only catch the unlucky few, but that doesn’t make the sting any less painful. We should add that checking for coverage via ISPs on Openreach’s national network obviously won’t reveal if you’re covered by other platforms, such as Virgin Media’s cable network or a fixed wireless provider.
Similarly testing via an ISP’s availability checker can be a double edged sword as some will retain your phone number and follow it up later with a marketing call, which perhaps crosses too far over into the territory of annoying marketing shenanigans.
Alternatively we’d recommend first conducting a basic check via Openreach’s When and Where page, which can also be followed up by checking via the BTWholesale Availability database for a bit more detail. Finally, CodeLook is another useful one that can reveal more information about local street cabinets and FTTC/P status, although it won’t always reflect if the cabinets are full (at maximum capacity) or not.