Internet service providers will be forced to make it easier for customers to switch to a rival, under new rules announced by Ofcom.
The regulator said on Wednesday that, while 83 percent of UK internet users who have switched provider found it easy to do so, a "significant minority" had encountered problems.
Although the issue of migration access codes (MACs) — a string of numbers that enable a speedy transition to a new ISP — has already been promoted under a voluntary code of practice, from 14 February next year a new rule (General Condition 22: Service Migrations) will "require broadband providers to supply consumers with a MAC upon request and free of charge".
The ruling will mean, for example, Orange will not be able to carry through on its stated plan to charge customers who ask more than once for a MAC. A spokesperson for Orange said on Wednesday that the operator would be "discussing this with Ofcom to clarify their position", but Ofcom's spokesperson was adamant that all MAC codes, regardless of how many are requested, will have to be provided for free.
The new rules will also mean that wholesale providers have to provide MACs to the retail providers reselling their services, regardless of any contractual or payment dispute that may be going on between the wholesaler and retailer at the time.
A spokesperson for Ofcom confirmed that this part of the ruling was at least partially inspired by the ongoing battle between NetServices, a wholesaler, and Biscit/V21, its erstwhile client.
It also seems that these regulations will have teeth — something the "voluntary code of practice" never did. "A breach of the general conditions carries with it a range of possible sanctions — anything up to and including 10 percent of turnover," said Ofcom's spokesperson.
However, a situation like the NetServices and Biscit/V21 dispute would not be entirely addressed under these rules. In this case, when NetServices suddenly cut off customers, it told them that V21 had gone out of business — which came as a surprise to V21. In any event, the customers were unable to contact their retail supplier, and Ofcom is currently saying only that it will "continue to work with industry to identify an alternative mechanism to release MAC codes to consumers" if a retail provider is for some reason unreachable.
"It might not be proportionate to demand that wholesale providers have to provide MACs to 15,000 users," explained Ofcom's spokesperson, adding that the regulator had not wanted the finding of a solution to this kind of limited problem to hold up the other "priority issues". The spokesperson also indicated that ongoing discussion with the industry would result in further proposals "sometime after February".
NetServices declined to comment on Wednesday, saying only that it would be "inappropriate for us to make any comment to the press" prior to discussions it will soon be having with Ofcom.
Biscit/V21's Hugh Paterson, on the other hand, said he "totally agreed" with the new rules. Paterson was in an ebullient mood when contacted, claiming a High Court injunction victory on Tuesday against NetServices.
He said the injunction forced NetServices to return to Biscit/V21 the "realms" — or domains, in this case "V21.co.uk", "speeddsl.com", "flexisurf" and "ispnet" — that had been transferred to rival provider (and NetServices client) ezeeDSL during the dispute. Paterson also claimed that the "fatuous invoice" for burst bandwidth, which lay at the heart of the dispute, had been thrown out by the court — he now intends to pursue his seven-figure damages claim against NetServices.
However, when asked to comment on the unresolved problem faced by customers who cannot contact a defunct retail provider, Paterson suggested that Ofcom should address the issue of "who owns the MAC".
"If it's you as the customer with your telephone line, then you would have the right to give or rent or allocate that to your provider of choice for a fixed period of time," said Paterson. "At the end of that fixed period you would have the right to either continue with your existing provider or transfer to another one — it puts the consumer in the driving seat."
The Ofcom rules will also make it the responsibility of all broadband providers to ensure that technical and operational problems such as "tag-on-line" — where a previous tenant has not cancelled their broadband contract, thus causing a delay for the next tenant to hook theirs up — are not the consumer's problem.
"If there is any kind of evidence that a provider is not doing enough to solve the problems created by tag-on-line then we can investigate," said Ofcom's spokesperson, adding: "It was always in the interest of industry to sort this out, but they now have a regulatory obligation."