Ofcom want simpler mobile switching

30 July 2015, 15:54   By Samantha Smith

PEOPLE wanting to move to a new mobile phone provider could find it much simpler in the future, under proposals from Ofcom.

ofcom mobile phone
Source: Ofcom

Following on from changes brought in to make switching voice and broadband services simpler, they're consulting on similar plans for mobile.

Citing issues around overlapping contracts and taking our mobile numbers with us, Ofcom are keen to make the user's role in the switch much less complicated.

They say the perception that moving between networks is overly difficult could be contributing to people staying with providers who aren't giving them the best deal.

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Ofcom say the proportion of people switching their communications services has declined in recent times - and they don't think it's because we've all found the perfect deal for us.

They say that in 2012, 19% of us switched at least one communications service, and that in 2013, 20% of us did so - but in the year to July 2014, only 13% of us moved at least one service.

People moving between mobile networks are even thinner on the ground, with switching rates dropping from 11% to just 7% between 2013 and 2014.

It's possible that the move towards longer contracts to cover the cost of increasingly expensive handsets, and fibre broadband commitments, has contributed somewhat to the decline.

Ofcom also admit that their research was carried out around the time a new iPhone was due to be release, which may have caused some people to delay possible contract changes or purchases.

mobile switching figures

SOURCE: Ofcom, The Consumer Experience of 2014. Available here [pdf]

And while the majority of people they spoke to who did take the plunge said the actual process was either "very easy" or "fairly easy", 44% did say they'd had difficulty with some part of it.

The biggest issues were losing service, the whole process taking longer than expected, and old providers trying to persuade them to stay.

In fact, Ofcom say that of those who considered switching, 57% were persuaded not to by their old provider.

Among those were determined to move, 24% said their old provider tried to convince them to stay; 18% said it was the main problem, or one of the major problems, they faced when switching.

A bit like broadband

So Ofcom want to bring in changes like those they did for switching broadband and landline provider, where pretty much everything about the move is handled by the new provider.

Known as "gaining provider led" or "notice of transfer" switching, at the very least it would take the hassle of trying to coordinate switching dates out of the hands of the customer.

Under the present system, people who want to move but don't want to be left without a mobile service often have to accept the fact that they're going to be paying for two contracts for a while.

They have to call their old provider to give notice, and then try to arrange things with their new provider so that service begins before the old one is cut off - or commit to the new service then get in touch with their old provider to serve notice.

In both the mobile and fixed line telecoms world this is referred to as "cease and re-provide".

In the case of fixed line telecoms, it's only necessary when someone moves between a provider using the Openreach network - more than 200 ISPs at the last count - and one using totally different infrastructure, like satellite, cable or fibre to the premises.

Because of the different, very physical, infrastructure involved, there's no way around using this more drastic switching solution in such situations.

But with mobile providers, where the physical infrastructure is basically a couple of SIM cards, an unlocked phone and the local phone masts, it seems overly fussy - and it puts people off.

So Ofcom suggest that this process be replaced with one where the customer simply gets in touch with their chosen new provider, then lets them do all the legwork.

As well as being much less hassle for the customer, the fact that it means providers have to talk to each other about the handover should hopefully mean an end to either having to go without a service, or paying for two at once.

My new number is...

What complicates this vision of a simpler switching process is the fact that a large number of us want to take our mobile number with us.

Anyone wanting to do this has to get in touch with their old provider to request a Porting Authorisation Code (PAC), which they must then give to their new provider.

It's possible for customers to request their PAC over the phone, but some providers also allow customers to request them via email, letter, online form or even webchat.

When dealing with requests over the phone, Ofcom regulations state that the caller should be told their PAC immediately (during the call), or within two hours by text - or both.

It's at this point that customers are also supposed to be told what charges they're likely to face for ending their account - say, for example they're leaving before their contract is up, or how their standard monthly charges will be worked out.

They then have 30 days to give the PAC to their new provider. Under the same regulations, once the provider has received the PAC and the request to move the number, they have one business day to port and activate it on the new network.

As calling up for a PAC is a pretty serious indicator that someone's planning to jump ship, it's perhaps not surprising that this is one of the areas in which old providers cause trouble.

More than 17% of the roughly 250 complaints Ofcom receive every month about changing mobile provider relate to issues with getting or using a PAC - from being given an incorrect code to being charged for one, or having a request for one refused.

complaints received changing mobile provider

SOURCE: Ofcom Consumer Switching report, available here [pdf]

So Ofcom's other big suggestion is that people wanting to get a PAC should be possible with a reduced "level of engagement" with the losing provider.

They've suggested customers should be able to call an automated system or text a special number to be able to request the code instead.

Ofcom point out that this system is already in use elsewhere: in France, customers can use an automated phone system to request their PAC.

The text they receive in reply not only contains the code but details about when their current contract ends - although they must still contact their old provider to find out about any early termination fees and the like.

Next steps

Ofcom are consulting on their proposals until October 6th this year, with submissions welcome by post, online or via email.

At the same time, they're also looking into how switching is affected when people have a triple play bundle - landline, broadband and pay TV - but the timetable for that isn't so clear.

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