Vodafone challenges new Ofcom rules on leased line rates

Vodafone has lodged a complaint with the Competition Appeal Tribunal, challenging new rules which it believes will give Openreach too much opportunity to abuse customers.

Following the latest Business Connectivity Market Review rules published in June, Ofcom granted Openreach greater freedoms to charge customers more for leased lines. These leased lines underpin home broadband, cloud hosting and 5G, as well as services offered directly to the citizen, such as banking, healthcare, and local and central government online services.

“Ofcom has now changed its approach and is regulating based on what it hopes will happen in the future, rather than based on the evidence of how the market works now,” Vodafone said in a press release.

The relaxation of rules has been based on various investigations over the last few years, though Vodafone has found issue with a few points.

Firstly, the Business Connectivity Market Review suggests Openreach does not have significant market power in the London region. Vodafone disagrees with this, suggesting market share of between 60% and 70%, exceeding the levels defined as market domination by Europe.

Secondly, Vodafone disagrees about the removal of a cost-based price cap in favour of a flat rate price cap. The cost-based approach was much more fluid, moving with the real cost realised by Openreach. Vodafone suggests Openreach costs are only going down, therefore the wholesaler will benefit significantly from the change.

Finally, in some cities Ofcom expects competition to enter the fray, therefore pricing regulations have been loosened. From Vodafone’s perspective, the facts are simple; competition hasn’t yet entered the market, and the regulations should be kept in place until they actually do.

In some parts of the saga, Ofcom has perhaps acted slightly irresponsibly, though you always have to remember this is a PR assault from Vodafone. Weaponising the press, as Vodafone is trying to do here, is often accompanied by emotive language, exaggeration and quoted figures which push right to (or perhaps beyond) the edge of estimate ranges.

This is not to say they will not prove to be accurate, but it is always worth remembering the presence of massaging and manipulation.

Ofcom fines BT for suspect accounting

Ofcom has fined BT £3,727,330 for reporting inaccurate financials to the regulator, leading to the telco paying lower administration fees to the regulator for five years.

One of the ways in which Ofcom funds its activities is to charge certain companies an annual administration fee. This fee is determined by the total revenues generated by the company. As BT reported inaccurate results between 2011 and 2015, it paid lower administration fees throughout this period.

BT has not contested the fine, and the full sum had been paid to Ofcom on July 29.

“BT’s cooperation with Ofcom in relation to this investigation has been extensive and productive,” Ofcom said in the report.

“Upon discovery of its error, BT informed Ofcom and committed to remedying the consequences of its error. BT has also undertaken extensive work to ensure that its final resubmitted turnover is complete and accurate; had Ofcom had to carry out this work itself, it is likely to have required significant resource and time to complete.”

Although BT does not have the most glimmering record when it comes to accounting in recent years, the telco did own up to the error rather than Ofcom being informed by a whistle-blower.

The error seems to have been identified by BT Group CFO Simon Lowth, who had only been in the role for a year at the time. In September 2017, documents were submitted to Lowth to review the submission of annual turnover for 2016. Upon reviewing the document, Lowth ordered an investigation into the previous submissions dating back to the original General Demand for Information in 2011.

BT believes the oversight was down to human error, an employee misunderstanding the data sources used, though it still does not the most complementary light on the accounting practices of the business.

Aside from this oversight, BT is still reeling from the Italian accounting scandal which was unearthed in 2016. The fraud cost the company more than £530 million, with £8 billion being wiped off the telcos market value in a single day. US investors, represented by law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, have recently announced a lawsuit to recover some of the losses.

The £3,727,330 fine might be considered a relatively lenient one, though generally regulators are kinder to the guilty party if it admits to wrong-doing without prompt. The sum was calculated by adding the deficit to interest payments. The Bank of England base interest rate during the 2011-15 period was increased by 1% to get the total.

It is difficult to blame the current management team and workforce for this error, it would have been prior to the tenure of many employees, though it does not reflect well on a company which is attempting to prove it is a successful business.

The UK is turning to VoD – Ofcom

Half of UK homes now subscribe to TV Streaming services, reveals a new Ofcom report, as the country increasingly opts for video-on-demand.

The precise proportion is 47%, which is lower than some might expect given the apparent ubiquity of Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc, but still a significant jump from 39% just a year earlier. Furthermore, since many people have more than one service, the total number of subscriptions increased by 25%. If this keeps up it won’t be long before nearly all of us spend our evenings consuming copious amounts of VoD.

This is the headline finding from Ofcom’s latest Media Nations Report, which takes a deep look at the country’s media consumption habits. Any parent won’t be at all surprised to hear that younger people far prefer on-demand video over traditional broadcast and, as a result, consumption of the latter is in rapid decline. Thanks to the oldies broadcast telly is still the most popular form of video consumption, but not for long.

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“The way we watch TV is changing faster than ever before,” said Yih-Choung Teh, Strategy and Research Group Director at Ofcom. “In the space of seven years, streaming services have grown from nothing to reach nearly half of British homes. But traditional broadcasters still have a vital role to play, producing the kind of brilliant UK programmes that overseas tech giants struggle to match. We want to sustain that content for future generations, so we’re leading a nationwide debate on the future of public service broadcasting.”

The UK state seems to be in a mild panic about the decline in viewership of what it considers to be public service broadcasting, which means any old rubbish that’s publicly-funded. It’s highly debatable how much of the content produced by the BBC provides any kind of public service other than distracting us for a few minutes, but Ofcom seems to still think it’s really important.

This last table is especially illustrative of the current state of play, with younger adults all about YouTube and Netflix. If Ofcom had surveyed teenagers we suspect that bias would have been even more pronounced and as these trends continue the TV license fee is going to become increasingly hard to justify.

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Giffgaff managed to find a way to overcharge prepaid subscribers

UK telecoms regulator Ofcom has fined MVNO Giffgaff £1.4 million for double-charging some of its pay-as-you-go customers.

Giffgaff specialises in prepaid SIM-only mobile phone deals, in which subscribers buy chunks of data, etc, marketed as ‘goodybags’, in advance and then buy more when those are used up. Any data used when a goodybag isn’t active is charged at 5p per MB. It looks like there was some delay in properly recognising when a fresh goodybag had been purchased from a billing perspective, resulting in people continuing to pay the metered rate at the same time.

This resulted in 2.6 million customers being overcharged by a total of £2.9 million, which might seem like a lot but is only a quid per punter. Once Giffgaff realised what it had done it grassed itself up to Ofcom, which proceeded to spend the next ten months ‘investigating’ what it had already been told. This resulted in Giffgaff being fined £1.4 million, which would have been more if Giffgaff hadn’t fessed up and already attempted to refund the overcharging.

“Getting bills right is a basic duty for every phone company,” pronounced Gaucho Rasmussen, Ofcom’s Director of Investigations and Enforcement. “But Giffgaff made unacceptable mistakes, leaving millions of customers out of pocket. This fine should serve as a warning to all communications providers: if they get bills wrong, we’ll step in to protect customers.”

Thanks Gaucho, but didn’t Giffgaff tell you what it had done and hasn’t it already taken remedial measures? What, exactly, have you done to further protect customers other than spend ten months mulling over how much to fine them? Even regulators can never resist an opportunity to self-promote.

Giffgaff seems to have missed a PR trick here too. There is nothing on its website or social media addressing this, so people are largely left to interpret the background to the fine themselves. For a prepaid brand that makes a virtue of transparency and value for money, this apparent shiftiness and surrendering of the narrative could end up being far more harmful than the fine itself.

Ofcom looks to Salisbury for full-fibre experiment

Ofcom has introduced a new public consultation for rule changes which will remove regulatory commitments for Openreach to provide Superfast broadband services over copper wires.

As it stands, rules dictate Openreach has to provide customers access to Superfast broadband services. This is a step-change towards the ultimate goal of full-fibre broadband, with Openreach being forced to incrementally increase broadband services. Although this seems like a sensible approach to walk the path to full-fibre, the worry is offering two different services might disincentivise investment in full-fibre.

“Openreach has announced plans for a trial in Salisbury in which it aims to migrate customers to full fibre and then withdraw copper services there at the end of 2022,” Ofcom said in a statement. “Openreach has requested changes to existing regulation to facilitate the early stages of the Salisbury trial. This consultation sets out our proposals in relation to those changes.”

The proposal open to consultation here is the removal of obligations for Openreach to provide Superfast broadband services, speeds of more than 24 Mbps, over copper infrastructure when full-fibre alternatives are available. This is only when a customer requests an upgrade (when moving to a new house for example) not when a contract comes to an end. Customers will be able to stay on current contracts should they choose.

There are two questions which need to be answered here. Firstly, will removing Superfast options for the consumer help drive more investment into full-fibre infrastructure. And secondly, how will the consumers react to being forced into most-likely more expensive broadband tariffs? Openreach and telcos will have to take a careful approach to pricing if this trial is to prove successful.

The plan for Openreach is to withdraw copper services from various markets as exchanges are upgraded to full-fibre. As each exchange area is upgraded, copper services will be withdrawn, this is the strategy across the UK and is important to support the investment case for full-fibre. Ofcom has seemingly listened to this case and is looking to adapt rules to support this case, and hopefully, accelerate the migration across to full-fibre.

Should the consultation be positive, the new approach would be introduced in Salisbury during September 2020, with the long-term plan to retire all copper-based services in 2022 in the area.

Outside of this trial in Salisbury, Openreach has also recently announced a number of wholesale price reductions to encourage wholesale telco customer to encourage consumers to switch to fibre-based offers.

The new prices will come into effect on September 1, designed to make Openreach’s full fibre platform more accessible, with the same terms and conditions available to all telcos, without any obligation to commit to specific volumes.

Product Price reduction New price
Ultrafast (330 Mbps) 36% £24.28
Ultrafast (110 Mbps) 20% £17.28
Superfast (40 Mbps) 10% £14.28

Openreach also plan to launch 500 Mbps and 1 Gbps variants of its FTTP service during the next 12 months.

“We’re making great progress on our full fibre build programme and our discussions with customers about upgrading the country have been encouraging so far,” said Katie Milligan, Managing Director for Customer, Commercial and Propositions at Openreach.

“Naturally pricing is fundamental to that shift and we want to give our wholesale customers the confidence to invest at scale in their own full fibre products and services using our network. To do that, we’re offering them a greater incentive to switch their customers to a full fibre world, with more competitive pricing and a wider choice of products.”

The UK is pretty far behind the norm when it comes to fibre connectivity, though progress does seem to be accelerating in recent months. Should Ofcom be able to evolve the rulebook at the same time as Openreach taking a new mindset to pricing, the future does look a lot more positive.

Ofcom moves in to protect UK mobile users from loyalty punishments

The UK’s telecom regulator believes out-of-contract mobile users could have saved millions if telcos offered the best deal available, and has released new measures to protect them from being treated unfairly.

After nearly a year’s research the regulator has found that on average the out-of-contract customers, those who have taken out a handset/airtime bundle contract and stay with the operator after the contract runs out, are paying £11 more per month than if they have been offered a better alternative, e.g. a comparable SIM-only deal. This would take the total amount of over-payment made by the 1.4 million out-of-contract customers to £182 million a year.

“Our research reveals a complex mobile market, where not everyone is getting a fair deal. So we’re introducing a range of measures to increase fairness for mobile customers, while ensuring we don’t leave existing customers worse off,” said Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom’s Consumer Group Director.

The new measures introduced today, published in a release titled “Helping consumers to get better deals in communications markets: mobile handsets”, focus on three areas:

  1. Transparency of contract details: mobile operators offering bundle contracts should tell customers the cost of the handset and the cost of airtime separately. This is in line with new EU rules, but Ofcom has decided to introduce it to the UK despite  the decision to leave the EU.
  2. Time limit on “split contract”: this refers to the kind of contacts that a customer would pay for the handsets and usage separately. The new rule would cap such contracts to 24 months, to avoid customers being locked in one contract for to long and to make switching operators easier.
  3. Concretised measure to treat customers fairly, following the more vague “Fairness for Customers” commitment the operators signed up to. Specifically, it requires mobile operators to tell customers that their contract is going to end, and to explain to them the best available deals including SIM-only deals. The easy way of switching operators with a text message that was laid out in June is also coming into effect this month.

Ofcom also declared the first victories in operator endorsements. “All the major mobile companies – except Three – will also be reducing bills for millions of customers who are past their initial contract period,” Fussell said.

O2 and Virgin Mobile will charge their out-of-contract customers the equivalent 30-day SIM-only deal, while both EE and Vodafone are going to reduce the price for their customers out-of-contract for more than three months, though they will only confirm the level of discount by the end of the year. The discount will become effective next February.

“Three is the only major provider that has refused to apply any discount to its out-of-contract customers. As a result, these customers will continue to overpay and will not receive similar protections if they stay on their current deal,” the Ofcom statement said.

The regulator also announced that later this year it will publish its findings on broadband prices, and why some customers find their broadband bills higher than others.

BT faces another Ofcom probe

Ofcom has kicked-off an investigation to determine whether BT has complied with regulations concerning Excess Construction Charges (ECCs).

The ECCs are effectively charges for extra work BT-owned Openreach has to do to meet customer-specific network construction requirements. After the first £2,800 in excess cost, BT has been allowed to balance the spreadsheets with a standard connection charge for all relevant business connectivity services. BT has admitted it may not have applied the charge correctly and could be in-line for some wrist-slapping from the regulator.

“BT has provided Ofcom with information indicating that it may not have correctly applied the ECC exemption to a number of relevant business connectivity orders since the beginning of the ECC exemption regime,” an Ofcom statement reads.

“Having considered the information provided by BT, we have decided to open an investigation to examine whether there are reasonable grounds to believe that BT has failed to comply with its obligations under the following SMP conditions from 16 May 2014.”

Although some might suggest that a wholesaler such as Openreach should wear the cost of constructing its own assets, there are some exceptions. Occasionally, when delivering a new high-capacity leased line, for example, additional costs need to recouped by Openreach. This would be considered reasonable business practice, assuming Openreach plays fairly and by the rules.

Thanks to a prior Business Connectivity Market Review conducted by Ofcom, pricing controls have been placed on Openreach. Since 16 May 2014, the firm has been under these pricing restrictions in the pursuit of fairness.

As with most of these statements from Ofcom, there is little information for the moment. However, as BT informed the regulator of the potential over-charging, it would appear this is a case where judgment has already been reached. All Ofcom has to do now is understand the severity of the non-compliance and dish out a suitable penalty.

Average UK broadband speed up 18% – Ofcom

UK telecoms regulator Ofcom has published its annual communications market report and it reveals a healthy increase in broadband speeds.

Over the course of 2018 2.2 million people upgraded to ‘superfast’ (at least 30 Mbps) broadband, taking the total to 15.6 million connections out of a grand broadband total of 26.6 million. This resulted in the average residential download speed increasing by 18% to 54.2 Mbps, more than double the figure claimed by cable.co.uk earlier this week.

Apparently fibre-to-the-cabinet overtook full ADSL for the first time last year and we managed a whopping 500,000 full fibre connections, which was almost double the 2017 total. We’re told that 7% of UK premises had access to full fibre by the end of 2018, compared to just 3% a year earlier.

All this super-duper speed inevitably led to increased consumption, with average data use per fixed broadband line increasing by 26% to 240GB per month and average monthly use per mobile data connection increasing by 25% to 2.9GB. Equally unsurprising is the revelation that this is mainly driven by video streaming.

“A major factor behind this growth is the increasing popularity of TV streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, which is making traditional broadcast TV increasingly irrelevant and could eventually lead to it becoming entirely obsolete,” said Alex Tofts of Broadband Genie. “But these services, especially if viewed in 4K, can be data intensive and require a reasonably fast and, ideally, unlimited connection.”

Broadband Genie is a price comparison service, as is Cable.co.uk, so they have a commercial interest in people being dissatisfied with their existing service. Presumably anyone finding their fixed broadband inadequate for 4K streaming is already in the process of upgrading, or just settling for boring old HD. Anyone trying to stream 4K to their phone needs to ask themselves why.

Ofcom introduces text-to-switch

Thanks to Ofcom the days of being passed around a call-centre should theoretically be over, as new text-to-switch rules come into play.

Starting today (July 1) customers will be able to end mobile contracts simply by texting their provider. It’ll end an incredibly frustrating process used by all mobile operators to keep valuable post-paid customers from leaving their grasp.

It has been one of the biggest complaints against the telcos over the years; ending contracts is an incredibly painful process. While it might leave customers frustrated and infuriated, it does also help the telcos improve their churn. This is a system which is effectively loyalty through stubbornness, as the telcos enter a game of hide-and-seek with customers. It’s a competition of will and a perfect example of the telcos not understanding customer service.

“Breaking up with your mobile provider has never been easier thanks to Ofcom’s new rules,” said Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom’s Consumer Group Director. “You won’t need to have that awkward chat with your current provider to take advantage of the great deals available.”

Of course, while the majority of the telcos will be disappointed with the new rules, realising they will have to figure out new strategies to keep customers instead of forcing them into loyalty through the torture of hold-music, there will be some who are happy.

“I’m delighted that text-to-switch makes it easier and faster for everyone to get the best deal, helping people change to a new mobile provider with a few taps on their phone,” said Dave Dyson, CEO of Three.

“At Three, we’re making huge improvements to our 4G experience and preparing to launch the UK’s fastest 5G network, in more cities and towns than anyone else this year. This makes it the perfect time for people to consider the outstanding experience Three can offer, both now and in the future.”

Three might well be happy with the development considering the opportunity it has as we approach the era of 5G tariffs. Although the telco has not unveiled any pricing plans for 5G yet, the scene as been set for a disruptor to enter the fray and cause chaos.

EE has launched its 5G network and Vodafone is entering the small numbers in the countdown. Both have detailed tariffs on their websites, and both are charging a considerable premium for the pleasure of 5G. There is a massive opportunity for Three to undercut these two competitors on price, and with the new text-to-switch rules, it will be easier to lure potential subscriptions away.

In a perfect world, this text-to-switch initiative will force the telcos into a more customer-centric mind frame. Most businesses will tell you it is more profitable to cultivate customers first and chase new business second, but that have never really been the case for the telcos. Almost every business is geared towards acquisition first, leading the industry to its current position where it has one of the worst reputations for customer service and experience.

Perhaps these new rules will encourage the telcos to think about customers in a different way. The technology and data are certainly there to create a more valuable and informed customer experience, but only time will tell whether the telcos embrace it in the same way the OTTs do.

Europe gives Ofcom the greenlight for Dark Fibre plans

Having published new rules on Dark Fibre and ‘ducts and poles’ access in May, Ofcom has made no material changes following a review from the European Commission.

The rules are another attempt by Ofcom to encourage more competition in the fixed market and therefore increase investments made by the telcos in offering services in regions which could be deemed as less commercially attractive. Openreach might not be the happiest for the situation, but it is a step towards shortening the digital divide which has emerged in the UK.

Starting with the ducts and poles element, Ofcom has confirmed telcos laying fibre cables for broadband and mobile networks will benefit from greater access to Openreach’s existing infrastructure. The watchdog has used the phrase ‘unrestricted’ though we struggle to believe there are no loop-holes for Openreach to play around with.

This is not necessarily new from Ofcom, but it is an extension of rules which were passed last year. To this point, Openreach had been compelled into opening up access to the infrastructure for competitors serving residential customers and small businesses, though this update extends the rules to large businesses as well.

With enterprise services plugged as the biggest gain for telcos during the 5G era, the greater access to infrastructure competitor telcos have, the more attractive the business case will be for investment and therefore creating innovative services for the verticals. That said, Openreach will not be as happy as others.

This is a former-monopoly which has reaped the benefits of being the dominant player in the market. Employees will be tasked on protecting and profiting as greatly as possible from assets, though if the regulator keeps opening up infrastructure, this becomes more difficult.

The second area worth noting from this ratification from the European Commission addresses Dark Fibre across the country. This is an area Openreach has fought bitterly against though it seems it could only hold back the tide for so long.

The new rules will force Openreach to offer Dark Fibre as a product to other telcos in areas there are no rival networks present at Openreach’s exchanges. These are the areas where Openreach has a continued monopoly thanks to prior public investment and there is a risk of damaging the business case for competitors.

Under the new rules, in these areas where competition is unlikely to emerge organically, ‘dark fibre’ can now be ‘lit’ by competitors with their own equipment. Openreach will be required to give competitors physical access to its fibre-optic cables, at a price that reflects the cost of laying the infrastructure. In areas where there is competition, pricing regulations will be lighter.

Although these new rules are unlikely to be the most profitable for Openreach, there will be plenty of happy faces around the UK. Telcos have been complaining about the regulatory barriers to achieving the perfect 5G/fibre dream the Government has dreamt up, and this is one step in the right direction.