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Virgin Media and Durham Council Settle Fibre Rollout Legal Fight

Thursday, August 23rd, 2018 (7:41 am) - Score 6,264

Cable TV and broadband ISP Virgin Media UK has announced that they’ve settled their legal challenge against Durham County Council (England), which began after the operator objected to the “hefty” fees per metre that the authority wanted to charge for laying new fibre optic cable along grass verges.

The provider is currently deep into their £3bn Project Lightning expansion, which is working to extend their Hybrid Fibre Coax (HFC) and Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) based EuroDOCSIS network to an additional 3-4 million premises by around the end of 2019 (possibly 2020).

As part of that Virgin Media had previously pledged to build their network out to an additional 16,000 premises in Durham by the end of 2019, but that effort ran into trouble this spring after the operator accused the county council of putting up a “broadband blockade” that is “holding [their] rollout to ransom” by charging “hefty” fees for land access (here).

The Durham Dilemma

Essentially the council wanted to charge to access grass verges that run alongside public pathways, which Virgin needed so that they could lay fibre optic cables while at the same time minimising disruption caused to residents. The operator also hinted that this issue extended beyond Durham and that “haggling over land access” was now slowing down their roll-out elsewhere too.

In response Virgin decided to sue Durham as a test case for the recently revised Electronic Communications Code (ECC). This was updated last year in order to make it easier and cheaper for mobile and broadband operators’ to deploy new infrastructure (masts, cables etc.) on public or private land (details).

One key principle behind the ECC is that no-one should be unreasonably denied access to an electronic communications network. The ECC envisages parties reaching an agreement for rights of access over land. However, in the absence of such agreement, there is a provision to allow for such rights to be imposed by the Upper Tribunal (Lands Chamber). Virgin Media sought for these rights to be imposed.

Meanwhile the council said they were “extremely disappointed” by the action and “were under the impression we had a good constructive dialogue and that we were awaiting further information.

The Outcome

Fast forward several months and last night the two sides jointly announced that they had reached an “amicable agreement on land access terms,” which came ahead of the case being heard by the Upper Tribunal (Lands Chamber). The result is that Virgin Media will have to pay only £1 for land access to the areas which were under dispute.

Tom Mockridge, CEO of Virgin Media, said:

“This agreement with Durham sets a much needed precedent which will speed up broadband rollout and encourage investment. We hope that other local authorities and landowners now follow Durham’s example.

Most importantly, this is fantastic news for the residents and businesses of Durham as we can now continue the good work we started with Durham Country Council and bring a real broadband boost to local communities across the county.”

Stuart Timmiss, Durham CC’s Head of Planning, said:

“Following the reforms it was important that, as a local authority, we were able to test and understand the implications of the new code. Working closely with Virgin Media and our legal team we are happy to be able to move forward in ensuring our businesses and communities can benefit from superfast broadband.”

The agreement between the two parties resolves any future discussions regarding the laying of fibre-optic cable in grass verges that run alongside public pathways across the county. On top of that Virgin Media has also committed to expand the scope of its network rollout in Durham to include several new areas, such as Consett and Bishop Auckland.

Virgin clearly hope that the outcome will set a constructive precedent for other parts of the country where they may have been suffering from similar disagreements, although this could be hindered by the fact that the case never reached the tribunal stage (i.e. hasn’t been formally established in law).

The cost of civil engineering is a huge weight on such network deployments, but Virgin has shown that one obvious benefit from helping to cut those costs is the ability to then extend their coverage beyond what was originally planned. Carrot and Stick.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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8 Responses
  1. Chris says:

    Looks like a good result for VM.

    It’s about time someone also challenged the council permit schemes that were intended to be used for traffic management purposes but have been applied far more widely in some cases, ie. to all roads maintained by the council.

  2. Joe says:

    “Virgin clearly hope that the outcome will set a constructive precedent for other parts of the country where they may have been suffering from similar disagreements, although this could be hindered by the fact that the case never reached the tribunal stage (i.e. hasn’t been formally established in law).”

    That’s true but it probably depends on the fine details here. Did the CC capitulate because it looked at the ECC and its lawyers told them to settle or likely lose (in which case other councils are bound to take that seriously!) or did the court case merely force the issue up the CC chain to someone with enough sense to see this was not going to raise them enough money for the local political fall out of unhappy voters to be worth it. (different council make take different view son that amount of pain)

  3. Toby O'Brien says:

    So my bill for broadband only here in Norwich will be going up another 4 quid in less than a week to pay for this cockup! They made me pay for their cockup with ITV and now this they’ll charge us all for this. But hey “Improved Extras” are essential for us to keep growing apparently!

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      It doesn’t sound like there will be anything to “pay” since they settled the dispute before it went to court. Instead the area will get more coverage.

    2. un4h731x0rp3r0m says:

      Using your logic your bill would be going up a hell of a lot more if they did not bother challenging the council and paid what Durham Council wanted for verge access.

      If anything VM have saved money rather than needing to claw more back. So i have no idea what you are complaining about now.

      As for ITV i do not know how VM can be blamed for ITV wanting increased sums for their channels.

      If any increase in pricing an ISP makes is a concern or elicits such bad feelings and language then perhaps a change of ISP is in order.

  4. Tim Girvan says:

    The estate where we live still has the original aluminium phone lines underground and fed to our house. The sooner we have an alternative or proper fibre optic cables the better.

    1. Gordon Thompson says:

      Me too. DH8. Apparently we have aluminium because of a copper mine strike in South Africa in the 1960s. Archaic or not?

  5. john T says:

    It’s about time Bishop Auckland had a decent fibre network. BT’s fibre to the cabinet still has copper from the cab to the drop pole then on to the premises. Bishops copper network was built years ago and the ducting is out of date and in badly need of repair. I welcome VirginMedia with open arms.

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