Ofcom to make it easier to quit slow broadband providers

The broadband industry’s watchdog has announced it will make it easier for customers to leave broadband contracts if their speeds are too slow.

The new chief of communication watchdog Ofcom Sharon White will outline details of the new rules on Thursday in her first speech since taking post.

Customers can find themselves locked in contractually once the first three months of a deal had passed unless they paid a penalty fee, but under the new measures they will be able to walk away at any point if certain conditions are met.

“When Ofcom was established, access to a reliable internet connection and mobile phone was a ‘nice to have’,” Ms White will tell a conference hosted by the consumers association Which. “Now it is essential to the functioning of the economy, to the way people work and live their lives.”

She will say people still find it difficult to cancel contracts and are often frustrated with customer service.

The new rules come under a strengthened Code of Practice on broadband speeds and apply to internet service providers (ISPs) using digital subscriber line (DSL) technology. The move will affect BT, EE, Sky and TalkTalk, but not Virgin Media, which is exempt as it uses a cable-based system (HFC).

Traditionally when a customer sings a contract an ISP gives a range of speeds the customer can expect, but there is an additional stipulation the companies refer to less often, the minimum guaranteed access line speed. This is the fastest download speed delivered to the slowest 10 per cent of consumers on a similar service.

Until now customers had 90 days to leave their broadband contract without incurring an extra fee if their home fell below the MGALS, but under the new measure they can do so at any time.

“The ISP should provide information on the access line speed achieved by the bottom 10th percentile of the ISP’s similar customers and explain that if the customer’s actual access line speed is below the minimum guaranteed access line speed,” the revised code said.

However, consumers might find it difficult to actually determine if their house had fallen below the benchmark. If they do indeed switch providers, but that use the same technology as the previous one, there is the chance of facing the same issue.

“This will make a real difference for consumers and will encourage more people to take full advantage of competition in the sector,” Ms White will say. “Once this is in place we will next month turn our attention to improving consumer switching between mobile networks.”

Even though the move is welcome, experts are worried that it is a temporary fix and a faster more universal service is likely to cost consumers more. Prof Will Stewart, Chair of the IET Communications Policy Panel, said: “The real issue here is the mismatch between user expectation and what existing technology can deliver.

“The problems and the suggested measures that Ofcom is seeking relate to digital subscriber line (DSL) services that use old-fashioned copper lines designed wired telephones that are now carrying services literally thousands of times faster than those for which they were designed and installed. 

“This has been a great technical ‘fix’ and has got broadband out to most users quite quickly, but it is a temporary solution. 

“In the end we must move towards a fibre-wireless world in which the older copper cables will have no role.  The answer is direct fibre to the user, which is already rolling out around the world and in some places in the UK – but comes at a cost.”

If companies break the rules, Ofcom can investigate and take enforcement action – fine companies, but the process might not be straightforward for individuals who are advised to direct their complaints to either the Communications and Interne Service Adjudication Scheme or the Ombudsman Services.

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