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Ofcom Protects UK Consumers from Mid-Contract Price Hikes by ISPs

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013 (9:34 am) - Score 1,089

The communications regulator has today announced new measures that will make it much more difficult for broadband ISPs, mobile operators and phone providers to impose mid-contract price hikes without also giving consumers a clear way to exit their existing contract (penalty free).

At present Ofcom’s existing General Condition 9.6 (GC9.6) rule requires ISPs to give customers a minimum 1 month of notice concerning changes to their contractual terms but this includes an exception for where a provider agrees that the price increase “would be likely to cause material detriment“. However the definition of “material detriment” has been left somewhat open to interpretation and some providers have been known to exploit this.

Sadly Ofcom has already ruled out a complete ban on mid-contract price hikes, which it claimed wouldn’t be “consistent” with EU law, and instead the new measures are being promoted more as “guidance” than a strict rule. But the implications remain very clear.

Ofcoms New Guidance on Mid-Contract Price Hikes

* Ofcom is likely to regard any increase to the recurring monthly subscription charge in a fixed-term contract as ‘materially detrimental’ to consumers;

* Providers should therefore give consumers at least 30 days’ notice of any such price rise and allow them to exit their contract without penalty; and

* Any changes to contract terms, pricing or otherwise, must be communicated clearly and transparently to consumers.

Providers have been warned not to try and fiddle the system by reducing the call, text and or data allowances included in a customer’s monthly subscription price. The regulator made clear that it would “regard such action as a price increase – as consumers would be getting less for the same money“.

On the other hand operators would still be free to hike charges related to exceeding a monthly usage allowance, premium rate services or non-geographic calls and directory enquiries.

Claudio Pollack, Ofcom’s Consumer Group Director, said:

Ofcom is today making clear that consumers entering into fixed-term telecoms contracts must get a fairer deal. We think the sector rules were operating unfairly in the provider’s favour, with consumers having little choice but to accept price increases or pay to exit their contract.

We’re making it clear that any increase to the monthly subscription price should trigger a consumer’s right to leave their contract – without penalty.”

Finally, greater transparency has also been introduced into the process, which will require providers to ensure that letters or emails about contract changes are clearly marked as such. Notifications of price increases must also be clear, easy to understand and, where relevant, information about the customer’s right to exit the contract should be clearly explained upfront (e.g. on the front page of a letter or in the main email message).

The new Guidance, which is set to be introduced in three months’ time (late January 2013), is not without its critics. Vodafone in particular has previously warned that it could result in providers charging more for their services at the outset as this would be the only way to mitigate situations where suppliers, such as BT, hike their charges to the operator.

Leave a Comment
4 Responses
  1. Avatar Kyle

    Further ‘guidance’ rules from OFCOM. Bring on the tales of woe from customers affected by ISPs choosing not to listen to a word OFCOM says.

  2. Avatar toekneem

    3 months time isn’t (23rd January 2013)

  3. Avatar Phil

    BT had rise line rental in Jan 2014 as (I am in the half way of 12 months contract) and do I have the full rights to cancel it without penalty fee in Jan 2014?

    • Avatar DTMark

      I’m not really sure what OFCOM has added which is new.

      The general principle of these types of contracts is that the supplier cannot enforce a price rise or indeed any changes that are to your material detriment during the life of a contract.

      The supplier may request, but not insist. The customer is free to accept the rise (which is why the notification about it is usually buried away somewhere) by doing nothing, or, can say no.

      If the customer says no then the supplier may continue to offer the contract on the original terms, or cancel the contract.

      It is the supplier who elects to cancel, not the customer. This protects the supplier against e.g. unexpected increases in raw costs rendering their business unviable.

      The supplier may not in any way penalise the customer if they elect to cancel.

      That’s always been my understanding of contract law in these cases.

      So if that’s right, then you can give them a choice of two options.

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