Ofcom aim to help disengaged customers with broadband speeds

9 October 2017, 12:48   By Samantha Smith

BROADBAND customers suffering from poor internet speeds will soon find it easier to walk away from their providers, with Ofcom set to give ISPs only 30 days to fix connection problems.

ofcom mobile phone
Source: Ofcom

The right to switch ISP without paying an exit fee after a month has been outlined by Ofcom's Broadband Speeds Codes of Practice consultation, which also sees the regulator proposing measures that will keep customers better informed of the speeds they can expect from their suppliers.

If Ofcom implement the proposed measures next year, customers will have to be informed at the point of sale of the minimum guaranteed speeds they should expect, while providers will also have to give a "normally available" speed estimate that reflects peak time usage.

Yet while this will make the information provided by ISPs more extensive, the take up of the pre-existing right to exit contracts penalty free is "very low" according to Ofcom, suggesting that even with greater info and protections customers may still not be inclined to exercise their rights.

Updating existing rights

For the most part, Ofcom aren't really proposing anything massively new with their consultation. Instead, they're mostly aiming to bolster and support the rights customers already have.

For example, ISPs are already obligated to provide the customer with a minimum guaranteed speed after he or she has ordered a broadband package. Similarly, the customer can also request the ISP to provide such a minimum before he or she places the order.

By contrast, the new rules will mean that providers have to advertise such information at the point of sale as a matter of course, so that even those customers who wouldn't have asked will know what speeds they should be receiving.

Likewise, customers also currently have the right to leave their providers without paying an exit fee in the event of receiving speeds significantly below the minimum.

However, unfortunately for customers, there is no time limit ISPs have to obey in attempting to fix any speed problems, so they could in theory deny customers their right to leave.

So we plan to close the gap between what's advertised and what's delivered, giving customers a fuller picture before they commit to a contract. We're also making it easier to walk away from a contract, without penalty, when companies fail to provide the speeds they promise
Lindsey Fussell, Consumer Group Director, Ofcom

Fortunately, to rectify this unfortunate gap in the regulation, Ofcom are now proposing that ISPs are given a 30-day time limit to fix any speed problems.

Speaking of this proposal and the others being made by Ofcom, Citizens Advice's Gillian Guy said, "These changes are an important step in giving consumers more power to hold their broadband provider to account for poor service".

What does it mean?

That said, some qualification is needed in order to clarify just what exactly it means for speeds to "fall below the minimum level", since giving a customer the right to leave penalty-free after their speeds briefly fell below the minimum on just one occasion may not be entirely fair or proportionate.

However, in speaking with Ofcom, we were told that customers have to experience below-minimum speeds on three consecutive days before they can begin the process that could eventually result in them leaving their provider free of charge.

By imposing such a condition, Ofcom are perhaps hoping to save ISPs from the onerous costs that would come if only a single instance of below-minimum speeds were needed before a customer could demand redress.

Because as we've written before, broadband outages and service disruptions are surprisingly (or not so surprisingly) common in the UK.

Yet by the same token, raising the threshold to three days could mean that many customers might still experience one or two days of unacceptable speeds, on and off for the durations of their contracts, without actually being able to do anything about it.


On top of this potential flaw, Ofcom's proposed measures carry another weakness that could lessen their impact.

This is the fact that, unlike automatic compensation, for instance, they require the customer to act in order to solve below-minimum speeds, and the best available evidence suggests that many customers aren't particularly interested in acting to improve their broadband service.

For instance, customers have had the right to leave a contract if they receive below-minimum speeds since 2015, yet Ofcom themselves write in their consultation, "we understand from code signatories that take-up of the right to exit is very low".

Added to this, recent surveys on switching have shown that many people have gone years without changing their provider, with one ISPreview survey from February finding that 41.9% of broadband customers haven't switched in five years.

Given such a level of disengagement, it's arguable as to whether the proposals will result in a substantial increase in people leaving their suppliers, even if ISPs begin letting customers know of their ability to leave.

Still, for those who do make a habit of fully exercising their consumer rights, Ofcom's proposals may end up proving very helpful indeed.

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