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Ofcom to make it easier to change broadband service

The regulator has set out proposals to take the hassle out of switching landline and broadband provider, and to avoid 'slamming' — preferably by handing the work over to the new supplier
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Ofcom plans to make it easier for UK households to switch their telephone and broadband providers, and to keep them from being 'slammed'.

At the moment, the switching process for services run on the UK's copper infrastructure is too complicated, with different rules applying to different situations, the telecoms regulator said on Thursday. In addition, consumers can run into problems such as losing their service, having the wrong phone number switched, as well as 'slamming', where their service is changed without their knowledge or consent.

To make the process smoother, Ofcom set out a choice of proposals for the industry and launched a consultation (PDF) on these on Thursday.

"Ofcom's preferred option is a process where the new provider would manage the switching process, including the transfer of services from the old provider," the regulator said in a statement. "To guard against slamming, the switch would be checked and verified by an independent third party."

According to Ofcom, one in five consumers switching broadband provider loses their connection for around a week. In the last year, the regulator added, "130,000 households have faced problems with the wrong telephone line being taken over during the switching process or when moving house".

At least three different types of switching process have evolved in the UK over the years, leading to the confusion Ofcom is trying to clear up.

With landline service, people who switch have the changeover handled by the new provider, in most cases. The same thing happens with some bundles of landline and broadband services. With standalone broadband service, the burden is typically on the consumer. People have to contact their existing ISP for a 'MAC' transfer code, then give that code to the new provider.

For some landline-and-broadband bundles, there is no agreed industry switching process. In this case, the consumer has to end the existing contract — sometimes incurring charges — then sign up with the new provider.

Benefit to consumers

Ofcom chief Ed Richards said the new proposals will "improve consumers' experience of switching and ensure that they continue to benefit from competition".

"Smooth switching processes are essential to ensure that consumers can change providers with confidence. Many people think that the current systems are too difficult and unreliable, which is why we have made it one of our priorities to tackle this problem," he said in a statement.

The details for Ofcom's preferred proposal, where the new provider takes control of the switch, have yet to be worked out, a spokeswoman for the regulator told ZDNet UK. One possibility would involve providers taking on a new customer transfer via a third party for identity verification as part of the sign-up process. A similar validation technique is used in the US and Ireland.

While the ISP Association (ISPA) welcomed the news that Ofcom is tacking the switching problem, it expressed some reservations.

"We do have some concerns about potential costs of a [third-party validation] process, and what could turn out to be a potentially cumbersome customer experience," the ISP trade group said. "However it's probably too early to say more until we have had the opportunity to study the consultation report in more detail."

Describing the current situation as "unacceptable", the Communications Consumer Panel welcomed the proposals. It also urged Ofcom to bring in a unified process for other kinds of communication services, such as mobile, pay TV and cable.

"We are particularly concerned that current switching processes will not keep pace with the trend towards increased bundling of services, including pay TV services," panel chair Bob Warner said in a statement. "his will become more of an issue as convergence continues and competition intensifies. We will be monitoring this issue carefully."

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