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Scottish MP Calls for Easy UK Mobile Contract Exit in Areas of Poor Signal

Monday, Jul 6th, 2015 (8:47 am) - Score 504

A recently elected Highlands MP in Scotland, Drew Hendry (SNP), has called for a radical change in Ofcom’s regulatory policy that would allow UK mobile phone customers to exit their contracts without penalty if they suffered from poor or no signal coverage. But notspots or areas of weak signal are common.

Oddly the MP is modelling his approach by comparing it to the fundamentally different field of fixed line broadband ISP services. Hendry highlights Ofcom’s recent rule change, which allows customers of related services to exit their contract at any time, and without penalty, if their home broadband service suffers a significant and persistent decline in broadband speed (here).

MP Drew Hendry said:

Having a mobile phone is now a vital part of everyday life for the majority of those in Scotland. They are of course great for socialising, but they are also requirement for many business, especially small businesses, who simply cannot operate without them.

The Scottish Government is providing a great amount of support in its goal of making Scotland a ‘world-leading digital nation’ by 2020, however too much of Scotland, especially rural areas suffer from a lack of service.

Ofcom have rightly stepped in to allow broadband and landline users an option of getting out of their contracts if their service drops to an unacceptable level. My proposal, which I have raised with Ofcom and the UK Government, is to extend this right to mobile phone contracts and ensure that people are not stuck paying month-in-month-out for a completely useless device.

The majority of mobile phone contracts are now between 18 months and two years, meaning that people can be stuck paying for a service they are not receiving. This is manifestly unfair. If Ofcom were to amend the Code of Practice for mobile phones, just as they have done for broadband and landlines, thousands of people across Scotland and the UK could be saved from these bills.

Businesses and customers across the country want a better level of service and a better deal. This would be a step towards that. If you don’t have a signal, you shouldn’t have to pay.”

The trouble is that Hendry, while no doubt noble in his intention, appears to be confusing two very different things in his comparison between mobile coverage and fixed line broadband speed. A fixed service never moves, it remains static to a single line and thus the environment can more easily be measured, tested and sometimes even improved against a viable baseline.

By comparison mobile services are by their very nature.. mobile, the customer and their handset is constantly moving between different locations (both indoor and outdoor) with variable signals (the effectiveness of the hardware or software can also play a part in reception). Short of putting cells or boosters in every single building, there will always be patches of poor coverage.

Meanwhile the UK operators have also pledged to make 4G mobile services available to 98% of the population by the end of 2015. Similarly a new deal was signed at the end of last year (here) that should extend geographic coverage (voice and text) of the UK from 80% today to 90% by 2017 (note: 3G/4G data coverage will only be pushed from 69% to 85%). Neither of these will completely solve notspots or areas of weak signal, some will always remain due to the nature of the technology.

At the same time many contracts have higher prices because they are subsidising the cost of a bundled handset (e.g. iPhone 6, Samsung Galaxy 6 Edge etc.), often more so than the cost of the underlying mobile service that accompanies it. This adds an extra layer of complication and cost when considering contract flexibility.

Most of us begrudgingly accept that mobile networks aren’t perfect and won’t cover everywhere, with different operators also having different infrastructure and thus strengths or weaknesses in different areas. In that sense you don’t buy a mobile service unless you know it will have some use to you and since most people have a mobile contract then it’s easy enough to find out who works best and in which area (not to mention checking via one of those the flaky website coverage maps).

Granted there may be room for improvement, such as if a mobile operator decommissions a nearby mast and that in turn kills your service. But there are perhaps some limits on what is reasonable to ask of an operator, at least until somebody comes along to promise both 100% indoor and outdoor coverage of mobile voice and data, which for practical and economic reasons isn’t very likely to happen. It would be easier to scrap contracts entirely, but then prices would surely have to rise.

By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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