When a lorry ploughed into a row of telephone poles on an Oxfordshire highway in March, an entire village was cut off from the outside world. It wasn’t until three weeks later that phone lines and broadband were reinstated in Rousham, near Bicester. Only gradually did residents then realise that they had been reconnected to each other’s phone numbers.
The resulting chaos caused a new mother to summon someone else’s husband, an unwitting resident to make costly transatlantic calls on a neighbour’s contract, and an elderly woman, who is dependent on her phone, to be moved into respite care.
With poor mobile signals, residents of the tiny village rely on landlines for their phone calls and broadband.
The community was still incommunicado when Emily Fermor gave birth prematurely in her sitting room. Service was restored while she and the baby were in hospital for observation, and she only discovered the switched lines when she rang from the ward to ask her husband to collect her, and her nextdoor neighbour, Theo Jones, answered.
“He’d been given our landline number and had to rush round to our house to find my husband,” Emily says. “It turned out we’d been given the number of a lady up the road.
“People were getting really confused – it was a case of ‘You’re not my mother!’ when they made calls and heard a neighbour answering. If I hadn’t been on maternity leave, my neighbour would have been receiving all my work calls.”
The Fermors’ number was given to Jones and his wife, whose number appears to have been connected to an empty house in the village. “When Emily rang, thinking she was calling home, I didn’t realise she’d had the baby and assumed she wanted me to rush her to hospital for the birth,” Theo says. “I tried calling my own number but it rang out unanswered. It was hugely disorientating.”
The Joneses spent six weeks either with no landline or with the Fermors’ number, which they were reluctant to use in case the other family was billed.
“It was alarming because my wife is pregnant and under hospital care but she couldn’t give doctors her number because it had been allocated to another property, so she missed several telephone checkups,” Theo says. “It’s affected some elderly residents quite badly. One lady had to move into a care home because she couldn’t live safely without a landline, and another made calls to the US while unwittingly connected to his neighbour’s number (and contract), which left us wondering who’ll be liable for the costs.”
Openreach, which is responsible for the UK telecoms infrastructure, and relaid the damaged lines, says that about 15 of the 20-odd homes in the village lost service after the lorry crash and blames the number bungle on the “extensive and complex” nature of the repairs.
“Customers wouldn’t have been immediately aware of the crossed lines – which meant further delays before this issue came to our attention,” it says.
Telecoms customers must liaise with their service provider, rather than Openreach, over network problems, and the business of reclaiming lines and apportioning bills is complicated as residents are contracted to different companies.
The telecoms regulator, Ofcom, told Guardian Money that customers can only be billed for services they have used. “Providers are required to keep records for 12 months to ensure compliance with these rules,” it says.
In theory, this means that calls showing as being made in the period when the wires were crossed should not be charged to the account holder.
It would not comment on the specific case but adds: “We understand that Openreach has been coordinating with the providers involved to help resolve this situation.”
Theo says that trying to resolve it with his provider, TalkTalk, has been “Kafkaesque” as it never appeared to accept a mistake had been made. He says: “It kept insisting on testing the line (not appreciating it was connected to another house), it wasn’t interested in the new number we had been connected to (since it wasn’t on its system) and it asked us to call back using our home phone (not understanding that we were on our home phone but the numbers were mixed).
“We have not had any explanation as to what this means for our contract, or the implications of using our neighbour’s number.”
He was the last in the village to be reunited with his official number, 40 days after his service was cut off.
Customers are entitled to £8 for every day they are without service under a voluntary compensation scheme overseen by Ofcom. TalkTalk, which subscribes to it, eventually offered £320 after intervention by Guardian Money. Since the Joneses’ rightful number was not used while it was connected to another property, there will be no unexpected bills.
TalkTalk tells us: “We are sorry for the loss of service and have offered compensation for the inconvenience.”