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Ofcom Bans UK Mobile Operators from Locking Phones

Friday, December 17th, 2021 (2:15 pm) - Score 5,616
mobile smartphone and uk sim card sizes

The UK telecoms regulator, Ofcom, has today begun to enforce a number of new consumer protection measures on mobile operators, which in practice means that they can no longer supply locked phones and are now limited to a maximum contract term of 24-months on bundles (mobile plans and handsets).

In addition to the term limits, if a customer adds a service to their package, then providers will no longer be able to extend the contract periods of the existing services the customer already has without their consent. Taken together, these changes should give customers more flexibility to switch package or operator, without being locked into long deals.

On top of that, Ofcom has made sure that disabled (blind or vision impaired) 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 (e.g. braille or large print). This includes any communications about their service (except for marketing materials), such as price changes or payment reminders.

All of this is designed to support Ofcom’s “Text-to-Switch” (Auto-Switching) system for UK mobile operators like Vodafone, O2 (VMO2), Three UK and EE, which was first introduced in 2019 (here).

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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.
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29 Responses
  1. Smythe says:

    About time too!

  2. SM says:

    Why are marketing materials exempted from being sent in accessible formats, for people who need them in another format such as braille or large print?

    The operators can make some claims and legally binding communications in those, get someone to sign up who couldn’t actually read what it said (maybe the print was too small for them), and then the operator can just claim they had told the end user when they signed up, even though it wasn’t in an accessible format? If someone wants the information, they should provide it, I’m disappointed in Ofcom and would like to understand their reasoning for this specific exemption.

  3. jason1995 says:

    Hopefully this will stop Virgin Media making you sign a new contract when you amend anything on your account

    1. aqx says:

      You only get contacted with Virgin if you take a discount, so this won’t stop anything.

  4. K.T says:

    How does it apply to other networ devices? E.g. in-car WiFi is locked to one operator only even though it is an eSIM capable device.

  5. Tim says:

    This is stupid if you sign a contract your phone should be locked to that network 24/36 months another stupid ofcom rule…

    1. Billy says:

      Why? You are already paying for the handset as part of the contract, its none of the telcos business what you decide to do with it.

    2. Buggerlugz says:

      Absolutely. What if your carrier doesn’t invest enough in their network and it slows down during your contract (for example, like with Three) and you have to look elsewhere? That is precisely the reason why all hardware shouldn’t be locked to specific carriers. What it boils down too, is the fact they can oversell their product currently, this will stop them doing that in the future.

  6. Buggerlugz says:

    Will this include routers too?

    1. anonymous says:

      nope

    2. kandi says:

      this buggerlugz character never gives up on the three bashing.

  7. Guest says:

    So basically like Apple don’t lock their products to a specific network with loading screens that show a carrier, Android devices will do the same?

    1. mike says:

      There’s nothing stopping them filling Android handsets with even more junk than they usually come with. This is about locking a phone to use a particular network, and nothing more.

  8. Glyn says:

    I never buy direct from the networks anyway, all handsets from 3rd party sellers are unlocked already like from Mobiles.co.uk.

    1. ad47uk says:

      That is what I have done for my last three phones, then get a sim only contract, I am with smarty at the moment, happy as Larry with them.
      My third phone in 8 years, I tend to keep my phones until they stop working.
      I think if people get a phone on contract, then yes they should be locked, but as soon as the contract is done, they should be unlocked.

  9. Ray Woodward says:

    Ah, that explains the letter I had from Sky a few weeks ago then (at least so far as the changes to m mobile contract) I guess …

  10. Gary H says:

    I doubt we’ll see a shift in pricing unless its upwards, locking the Phone didn’t really benefit the Provider when you were locked into a 24 month call plan anyway, even if you needed/wanted to put a different SIM in you were still paying for the phone and the original call plan.

    Was a pain for me last year, couldn’t even use the dual sim functionality when I got stuck in China as both slots were locked, lucky timing it was only for the first 3 weeks.

  11. Guy Cashmore says:

    I wish they would stop network operators blocking VoWiFi if the handset was not supplied by them.

    1. Bubbles says:

      That’s not how that works…. If you buy any phone it will work with VoWiFi if it is supported by the network. They dont block it, moreover simply don’t support it for that model or at all on some networks. For example, my 3 purchased Redmi note 9 do VoLTE and WiFi call on any of the main networks bar O2 as they don’t support Xiaomi devices very well.

  12. Jazzy says:

    They should ban the RPI increase too

    I left EE because I was pee’d off everytime I took a new agreement to find it went up by a 5% every year. If you get a contract, it should stay at that price throughout

    I now buy my iPhones unlocked from Apple and use a MVNO operator and switch regularly – currently with Giff Gaff and saving £15 a month compared to the same plant offered by EE – £360 saving over 2 years

    Contracts are for mugs

    1. Mark says:

      £360 saving? That’s more than my total spend in the same period (including a new Android phone)!

      Perhaps expensive phones are for mugs…?

    2. tech3475 says:

      Whilst I agree RPI increases in contract is wrong, I do disagree with the blind assumption that contracts are wrong.

      Always calculate the approximate TCO of the various options available, including any discounts and then decide.

      In my case when I renewed my contract I got a discounted deal with a Note 20 Ultra.

    3. Buggerlugz says:

      Yes Mark, expensive phones are for mugs.

    4. mike says:

      How are you saving money with Giffgaff? I pay £20/month to EE for 190GB 5G, unlimited calls, unlimited texts.

      With Giffgaff that drops to 100GB for £20 per month. It also means using O2’s vastly inferior network.

    5. John says:

      “How are you saving money with Giffgaff? I pay £20/month to EE for 190GB 5G, unlimited calls, unlimited texts.”

      Try comparing like for like services.

      Comparing giffgaffs pay & go to a long term EE contract isn’t the same thing.

      100GB on EE Pay & Go is £30 with no access to 5G.
      None of their pay and go packs have 5G access.

    6. Jazzy says:

      Mark – Yes – The best deal EE would give me at 16 years loyalty was £50 a month for an iPhone 13 with unlimtted data, calls and texts

      My previous phone was an iPhone 6S and lasted me 6 years and is now my work phone (hand me down) to replace the iPhone 4 I had on that number. Apple was £32.45 a month and the SIM is £8 a month for 3GB. I used 1.5GB a month on average. I didn’t need unlimited data as I am now retired and working part time. Total saving over 2 years – £372.96 and I expect this iPhone to last me another 6 years. I am not wasteful, it’s in a leather wallet cover with an antishock protector. I don’t need pointless add ons from EE like Britbox or Apple TV

      Giff Gaff offer a member refund scheme called Payback. If you spend an hour or so a month on their questions and answers type forum they will credit your account with around £10 to £20 a month for helping other members with newbie queries. You can get this back as airtime credit – which is did this month. I got £17 airtime credit for nothing for answering a few questions about the iPhone13 – I had my work phone on there for 6 years and get back about £80 a year for a commitment of an hour or so a month answering questions, making my work phone free. If this continutes I will save a lot more than £372 in the next year

      Horses for courses though, I like iPhone and they seem to last a long time

      Giffgaff is also 5G

    7. mike says:

      John, if you’re spending more money you aren’t saving it. Simple as that.

  13. Mark says:

    PS – and that’s with EE!

  14. Jazzy says:

    * should have said £55 a month – they offered it for £54.99 with no upfront

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