Virgin Media has launched legal action against a local authority in a first-of-its-kind test of new Ofcom rules designed to make it easier for operators to install broadband equipment.
The telco has kicked off legal proceedings against Durham County Council, claiming that the council is stopping Virgin from laying fibre optic by charging "hefty" sums for the company to access the land.
The company is aiming to extend fibre to 16,000 properties in the area by the end of 2019, but work ground to a halt at the start of the year when the council decided to charge for access to grass verges running alongside public pathways.
BT and other utility providers already have pipes and cables installed in the grass verges, Virgin Media said.
The case will be the first test of regulator Ofcom's new Electronic Communications Code, which was introduced in December 2017 to smooth the process of operators putting in apparatus such as phone masts, exchanges and cabinets on public and private land. Virgin is looking to get a court-imposed agreement to give it access to the land so work can begin.
"We are disappointed to be taking this action against a council with whom we initially had a good working relationship," said Virgin Media chief exec Tom Mockridge. "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.
"Holding this fibre rollout to ransom over land fees risks leaving areas of Durham in the broadband slow lane. 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."
Mockridge also said that the issue was part of a wider trend of "haggling over land access", which 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," he concluded. "It's time rhetoric was put into action to truly break down the barriers to building broadband."
Stuart Timmiss, head of planning and assets at Durham County Council, said the authority was "extremely disappointed" at Virgin's course of action.
"Many meetings have been held over recent months, mostly to deal with the poor performance by Virgin Media in our communities," he added.
"Earlier this year, we took the unusual step of serving the company with an improvement notice due to a significant number of complaints received from residents on the streets in which they were operating.
"Virgin has been proactive in resolving these issues having terminated their contracts with contractors on site. However, these issues are not uncommon and we are not the only local authority who has been forced to take such action.
"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."