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Ofcom Extend Broadband ISP Switching and Ban Locked Mobiles

Tuesday, October 27th, 2020 (7:56 am) - Score 7,512
consumer switching uk broadband and phone

Ofcom UK has set out new measures that will make switching between broadband ISPs on physically separate networks easier (e.g. Openreach to Cityfibre), but due to the complexities involved providers will be given until December 2022 implement it. Mobile operators will also be banned from selling “locked” handsets.

Many of the changes being proposed today were originally intended to reflect the new European Electronic Communications Code (EECC), which among other things included a proposal for “making it easier to change service provider and keep the same phone number, including rules for compensations if the process goes wrong or takes too long” (here).

The EU rules were originally supposed to be implemented by 21st December 2020 but that was before the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) crisis had its way, which not only delayed the UK telecoms regulator in putting its proposals together but has also made it more difficult for providers to respond in the usual way; hence the general delay.

Broadband Switching Change

At present switching between ISPs on Openreach’s (BT) national network is a fairly easy and largely automated Gaining Provider Led (GPL) process (i.e. just contact your new ISP and they’ll get the ball rolling), but the rapid rise in new alternative network platforms (plus Virgin Media) – particularly full fibre (FTTP) providers like Cityfibre, Hyperoptic and Gigaclear – has created new challenges.

NOTE: Customers who fear that they’ve been the victim of slamming (i.e. being switched without their knowledge or consent) should contact both their existing and new provider, which will use Ofcom’s ‘Cancel Other‘ process to stop the order.

Summary – Existing GPL Switching Process

1. Consumer contacts their new (gaining) ISP and requests to switch. By starting this process the consumer is also beginning an automatic cancellation of the old service with their existing provider.

2. The gaining ISP begins the order process (details get sent to an electronic gateway for validation). Any details found to be incorrect will cause the request to be rejected. The old (losing) ISP is notified of the switch via the electronic gateway.

3. The gaining ISP sends out a ‘Notification of Transfer‘ letter to the customer’s address (or electronically by email etc.), which contains details of the customer and switching process (e.g. expected migration date etc.), as well as any relevant terms.

4. The losing provider sends out a similar switching letter, albeit one that includes information about any exit fees or other issues that may impact your service (e.g. the possible need to return your old ISPs router). A period of time is allowed for customers to contact the new (gaining) ISP and stop the switch, if so desired.

5. Assuming no rejection or cancellation is received within the transfer period then the switch completes (a 14-calendar-day ‘cooling off’ period exists, during which you can cancel your request to switch without charge).

Sadly, customers who want to switch between physically separate networks often have to take the manual cancellation route (i.e. order the new service and then contact your old ISP to cancel), which can result in longer periods of downtime (perfect coordination is difficult) and greater uncertainty for consumers.

In short, Ofcom wants to adapt the above GPL solution to the wider market and thus offer a “seamless switching experience“, regardless of whether consumers are moving across different fixed networks or between providers of ultrafast broadband services on the same fixed network.

Ofcom’s Statement

Customers need to be able to switch providers easily to take advantage of the deals available to them. When customers look to change provider, we are requiring their new broadband provider to lead the switch and offer a seamless switching experience.

This is regardless of whether they are moving across different fixed networks (for example, between Virgin Media and a provider using the Openreach network or a full fibre network provider such as CityFibre) or between providers that use the same fixed network, but connect customers using different technologies.

The regulator states that any “loss of service” that might occur during a switch will NOT be allowed to exceed 1 working day and ISPs will be expected to compensate customers if things go wrong. Ofcom will also ban notice period charges beyond the switch date for residential customers (they’ve already done the same more mobile networks), which is intended to prevent situations where a customer ends up paying for two services at the same time (despite only being able to use one of them).

Meanwhile the losing provider will be required to continue to supply the end-user on the same terms, until the new service is activated by the gaining provider, and to automatically terminate end-users’ contracts upon conclusion of the switching process. The losing ISP will also be required to reactivate the number and all related services where a switching process fails and until the port is successful.

In keeping with all this the regulator will also be making some “limited” changes to phone number porting, which includes giving customers the “right to port their number for one month after they have terminated their contract and a prohibition on charging customers to port their number.” This should be a big help as at present it can be quite tedious to get your number back if it’s lost during a switch.

Providers have been working behind the scenes for a while to develop a new switching process through the Office of the Telecoms Adjudicator (OTA) and a separate consultation is due to follow, which will set out the technical details of the proposed process. These are significant changes to how switching processes work and as such, the new rules are NOT expected to come into force until December 2022.

The move will certainly give alternative network (AltNet) ISPs something to think about, particularly as until now most of them won’t have had to deal too much with complex regulatory matters and process requirements, beyond the basics.

Mobile Switching Change

Next up we have mobile networks. At present Ofcom have already introduced a new “Text-to-Switch” (Auto-Switching) system for UK mobile operators (here) and so today’s changes are focused upon other areas, specifically the practice of selling locked devices (Smartphones etc.) so they cannot be used on another network (operators often enable you to unlock these post-contract).

The regulator now intends to completely ban the sale of “locked” devices (some operators, such as O2, Sky Mobile, Three UK and Virgin Media, have already ended this practice), which they say can create delays and hassle (e.g. the unlock code doesn’t work, unlocking attracts an extra cost (e.g. £10) or customers suffer a loss of service if they did not realise their device was locked before they tried to switch).

Apparently nearly half of customers who try to unlock their device find it difficult. Ofcom’s research also found that more than a third (35%) of people who decided against switching said the tedious aspects of having a locked handset had put them off.

Selina Chadha, Ofcom’s Connectivity Director, said:

“We know that lots of people can be put off from switching because their handset is locked.

So we’re banning mobile companies from selling locked phones, which will save people time, money and effort – and help them unlock better deals.”

The ban on locked handsets is due to be introduced from December 2021, which gives mobile operators over a year to prepare. All of the aforementioned changes should help to complement the new end-of-contract notifications system (here) and various other tweaks that Ofcom has made over the past few years to support consumers (e.g. automatic compensation).

However, there are also a few smaller, yet still fairly important, changes to be found in today’s statement and we’ve listed those below.

Summary of Other Changes

– Ofcom will also require providers to deliver better contract information (e.g. customers should be given the information they need in writing, before they sign a contract – including a summary of key contract terms). This will be enforced from June 2022.

– Consumers will gain the “right to exit” their contract if there are any changes to their contract that they have not been previously told about and that are NOT to their benefit (e.g. removing service features). The right to exit will also apply to other services or equipment bought as part of a bundle with a communications service. This will also be enforced from June 2022.

– Making sure disabled customers have equivalent access to information about their communications services. Any customer who needs accessible formats to be used because of their disabilities will be able to request communications be sent in a format that meets their needs (such as in braille). This includes any communications about their service (except for marketing materials), such as price changes or payment reminders. This will come into force in December 2021.

We should also point out that work is still on-going to improve phone number portability, particularly for VoIP, which is necessary because the new generation of “full fibre” providers are all IP based networks and older analogue phone services are due to be withdrawn by around 2025. At present moving your phone number to VoIP can be quite a slow and often tedious process (here), which may also attract a cost.

Ofcom hopes to simplify number portability and has been working with providers through the OTA to develop that too.

Ofcom’s EECC Statement

UPDATE 12:13pm

We’ve had a few comments come back.

Mark Evans, CEO O2, said:

“We fully support Ofcom’s decision today. At O2 we started selling unlocked handsets to customers a number of years ago – and we still maintain the best loyalty in the industry. Offering value and flexibility is a much better way to win trust, and as an industry we should be working to give customers the best of both.”

Paul Stobart, CEO of Zen Internet, said:

“This latest example of Ofcom intervening to protect consumer interests is one we absolutely support. To be honest it’s disappointing that the regulator has to intervene at all; it should be up to all of us in the industry to make switching frictionlessly easy. If we were all brilliant at looking after customers to the best of our respective abilities, switching would decrease dramatically! As an industry, what we should all be doing is working on ways to enhance the customer experience we provide, not offering short term deals to generate quick wins but then penalise customers with higher prices post the initial contract term.”

UPDATE 29th October 2020

Rural ISP Gigaclear has given some feedback.

Gareth Williams, CEO at Gigaclear, said:

“This is a positive step that Gigaclear fully supports. We build to some of the most underserved areas in the UK in terms of broadband networks. There are some areas of rural England that have speeds as slow as 1Mbps. These areas are already at a disadvantage when it comes to working from home, staying connected and giving children access to educational resources. Once a workable, ultrafast fibre broadband network is built to them, it should be as easy as possible for them to switch providers.

At the moment, any customer that wants to switch to a broadband network that isn’t BT Openreach has to arrange the timing of the switch themselves. Not only is this unfair, but it often means customers risk being left without connection in between their old service ending and their new one beginning. The proposals that Ofcom is consulting on address this problem and will make it much easier for customers to switch to the network that best suits their needs.”

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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 Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
Leave a Comment
9 Responses
  1. Chris Sayers says:

    Thumbs up to Ofcom,great work.

    1. Mike says:

      well it’s more thanks to the EU than OFCOM.

    2. joe says:

      Given they don’t have to implement the EU D not really.

  2. joe says:

    I know its not easy but December 2022 seem a tad long. Perhaps they are assuming a long covid tail..

  3. Rich says:

    No idea why the phone unlocking thing is not until Dec 2021.

    Obviously there will be locked stock in the chain, but they could easily say from today that phones must be sold with the lock code provided if locked and lock codes must be free upon request, and that from dec 2021 all phones must be sold unlocked.

  4. Michael V says:

    Oooh….. Vodafone will be dragged kicking & screaming all the way thru this new rule of no locked handsets.
    They had refused to sell dual SIM phones at one point. They now do I believe, but both SIMs had to be with them. Kinda defeats the object!

  5. G Cot says:

    Will this mean all net providers will have to offer a wholesale agreements to ISP? No point it being easy to switch unless my chosen ISP has access to the incumbent, VM, altnet network. It would also make overbuild pointless…..

  6. Billy Nomates says:

    I wish ofcom would stop them from offering features that only work on phones bought from them/with their firmware. Like VoLTE/VoWiFi when there’s no technical reason. I mean they could offer it and say well it’s only supported on these handsets etc.

    Some networks do that already. Others, insist on buying phones from them if you want these features.

  7. Haydn Lawton says:

    Well if ISP’s want to keep consumers happier they should offer the LOYAL customers the better prices so the hole switching wouldn’t be necessary, I believe a consumer should be charged less not more for renewing a contract as it’s the same hardware and such which is only rented not the actual consumers which makes charging more even worse especially when the cost of the hub/router is normally paid for by the end of a contract.
    It’s just silly to me that ISP’s can get away with this sort of practice it’s like buying a iPhone 12 pro then 18 months later you want to buy another but it’s an extra £400 it makes no sense to me why NEW customers always get better deals

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