New rules to force internet providers to make it easier to switch to a rival supplier could be announced before Christmas.
The telecommunications regulator Ofcom has revealed to ZDNet UK that it is prioritising the issue of forcing telecoms service suppliers to give customers migration access codes (MACs) due the high volume of complaints it had received over the issue. These MACs should allow customers to move smoothly and quickly to another ISP, but at present there's no obligation, beyond a voluntary code of practice, on ISPs to provide them.
"What it boils down to for us is choice — making sure customers are able to leave a service if they think there's something better for them out there," a spokesperson for Ofcom told ZDNet UK on Tuesday. "The MAC process makes life easier for consumers who want to switch."
Ofcom launched a consultation on the issue in August after an ISP called E7even was cut off by its wholesale suppliers, Tiscali and NetServices. NetServices strongly recommended to E7even's customers that they sign up for a new contract with ezeeDSL — an obscure ISP which is itself another NetServices customer.
NetServices refused to issue MACs to the customers, claiming it was unable to do so. Customers were therefore left with the choice of signing a new 12-month NetServices-based contract or being entirely disconnected (and relegated to dial-up internet access) until a bulk cease request was processed by BT. This process can take weeks.
"In this case, Ofcom made it clear to both Tiscali and NetServices that it did not consider it appropriate for wholesale providers to restrict customers' choice of a new supplier," said Ofcom in its consultation paper. "However, these wholesale providers did not change their course of action, and Ofcom was unable to take formal action to remedy the situation due to the voluntary nature of the MAC process."
Something similar had occurred in 2004 with Gio Internet, when NetServices cut off that ISP over payment issues then recommended that its customers sign up with F1 Internet — a company with strong links to NetServices, as revealed by its domain registration details, where the administrative and technical contacts are listed as a NetServices employee.
The same thing has happened twice more since Ofcom launched its consultation. In November, two other NetServices-supplied ISPs, Fast24 and V21/Biscit, were cut off for non-payment and the customers directed towards EzeeDSL with no possibility of receiving a MAC. In the case of V21/Biscit, widespread outrage expressed by customers led to NetServices conceding free connectivity until BT had had a chance to process the cease request.
"The reason we prioritised this piece of work [MAC availability] was exactly that type of scenario," said Ofcom's spokesperson, who revealed that the regulator had been contacted by hundreds of customers affected by Netservices and its client ISPs. "Whenever we receive a lot of complaints there's clearly an issue, but we hope we have identified this issue early before it becomes a problem for the mainstream".
The spokesperson added that an Ofcom statement on the subject could be expected "before Christmas".
NetServices has been hit hard by the explosion in "free broadband" services, as exemplified by Carphone Warehouse and Orange, and the knock-on effect this has had on the small ISPs it supplies. The company is listed on AIM (Alternative Investments Market) within the London Stock Exchange, and its recently published results show that it lost £3m in the last year and, as a result, intends to reduce its "exposure and risk" to the "highly commoditised" consumer arena by "focusing on resellers who target the business environment".
A good example, drawn from the V21/Biscit case, of a customer's frustration at not granted a MAC code can be found here.