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.

O2 UK first to exploit fairness initiative with Overpayment Estimator

Ofcom has been pressuring UK MNOs to stop ripping off their customers at the end of their contracts and O2 has been the first to act.

One of the secrets of success if you work in a regulated industry is turning new regulations to your advantage. When they can get away with it all operators rip off their customers whenever they can, whether it’s exorbitant roaming fees, punitive charges for going over your allowance or failing to let you know when you’ve paid off your handset.

The smart MNOs are the ones that make a virtue out of doing what they’re compelled to by the regulator and that seems to be what O2 has done with the launch of its Overpayment Estimator. It’s actually a fairly rudimentary tool that just asks you about your current contract, tells you what you could save if you switch to O2 when it ends and then invites you to set a calendar reminder to switch to O2 when that happens.

The fact that this is even a thing is an indictment of how UK MNOs treat their own customers. It’s surely not beyond the capabilities of modern BSS to create an internal calendar marker at the start of a contract that automatically notifies them when it has finished and yet that often doesn’t happen. The only plausible explanation can be that they want their customers to keep paying over the odds and that’s not cool.

“It is simply not right that consumers across the UK are being charged for a phone they already own,” said Mark Evans, CEO of O2. “You wouldn’t keep giving money to your mortgage provider if you’d finished payments and owned your house – so why should it be that way for your phone? The mobile industry does not have the best track record on transparent billing practices.  Our Overpayment Estimator is another positive move towards changing that.”

O2 has something called ‘custom plans, which it says don’t charge customers for their phones once they’re paid off and automatically lower their bills. If some of its competitors are still doing that sort of thing then O2 deserves some credit for exploiting this window of opportunity while it’s still open. The technology presumably exists to only charge people for what they use, but there’s no point in trying to walk before you can crawl is there?

UK steps up its consumer protection crusade

The UK government has announced it wants to give some regulators the power to fine companies unilaterally without involving the courts.

The main beneficiary of these proposed new powers will be the Competition & Markets Authority, which exists to regulate markets. The plan was unveiled by Business Secretary Greg Clark as outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May rushes through a bunch of commitments in an apparent bid to have something to show for her time in charge. Specifically this refers to claimed ‘loyalty penalties’ in which existing customers are given insufficient information about available deals.

A key part of this initiative seems to be to give the CMA the power to interpret and enforce the law itself, without needing to trouble the judiciary. Why the matter of a few punters paying a bit more for their utilities is a matter of sufficient gravity to suspend the rule of law is not made clear, but Clark seems to want the CMA and possibly other regulators to be able to fine companies whenever they feel like it.

The Government has already committed to legislate in order to give consumer enforcers the power to impose fines on companies for breaches of consumer law by applying to the courts,” wrote Clark in his letter to the CMA. “We will follow this through and also want to go further to ensure that enforcers have the powers they need to incentivise firms to comply with the law. This will include empowering the CMA to decide itself whether consumer protection law has been broken and then impose fines for wrongdoing directly.”

“I strongly believe that consumer loyalty should not be exploited and nor should consumers have to work so hard to get a fair deal,” said Clark in the press release of the announcement. “We have already shown our willingness to take action through our energy price cap, which means every household is protected from unjustified price rises.”

The system as it stands not only lets consumers down but it also lets down the vast majority of businesses who play by the rules,” said May. “It is high time this came to an end and today we are confirming our intention to give much stronger powers to the CMA, to strengthen the sanctions available and to give customers the protection they deserve against firms who want to rip them off.”

All this agonising over the plight of hapless UK consumers isn’t limited to the government. The Advertising Standards Authority thinks UK companies shouldn’t be allowed to portray claimed ‘gender stereotypes’ in their ads because they might cause some unspecified harm. Even the prospect of harm is now sufficient justification for state censorship, it seems.

“Our evidence shows how harmful gender stereotypes in ads can contribute to inequality in society, with costs for all of us,” said ASA boss Guy Parker. “Put simply, we found that some portrayals in ads can, over time, play a part in limiting people’s potential.  It’s in the interests of women and men, our economy and society that advertisers steer clear of these outdated portrayals, and we’re pleased with how the industry has already begun to respond”.

So we’re not even talking about harm here, just ‘playing a part in limiting people’s potential’. Parker is so concerned about this blight on UK society that he has sat on his claimed evidence for two years before acting. Here are the ‘outdated portrayals’ advertisers are no longer allowed to depict.

  • An ad that depicts a man with his feet up and family members creating mess around a home while a woman is solely responsible for cleaning up the mess.
  • An ad that depicts a man or a woman failing to achieve a task specifically because of their gender e.g. a man’s inability to change nappies; a woman’s inability to park a car.
  • Where an ad features a person with a physique that does not match an ideal stereotypically associated with their gender, the ad should not imply that their physique is a significant reason for them not being successful, for example in their romantic or social lives.
  • An ad that seeks to emphasise the contrast between a boy’s stereotypical personality (e.g. daring) with a girl’s stereotypical personality (e.g. caring) needs to be handled with care.
  • An ad aimed at new mums which suggests that looking attractive or keeping a home pristine is a priority over other factors such as their emotional wellbeing.
  • An ad that belittles a man for carrying out stereotypically ‘female’ roles or tasks.

That’s all nice and clear isn’t it? Presumably it’s OK to have a bloke doing the washing up in an ad, or a woman chopping down a tree, so long as it’s not also considered to be taking the piss. It looks like ads now have to feature unattractive people being fancied by everyone, but it’s unclear whether beautiful people are allowed to be fancied too. Lastly the ASA advises that banned gender stereotypes are allowed as a means to challenge their negative effects, so the Gillette ad below is presumably OK.

At this rate it’s possible to imagine a time when no UK consumers will ever come to any harm whatsoever and everyone will be free to explore their full potential, unencumbered by dispiriting imagery. Anyone who has a problem with UK agencies unilaterally fining and censoring companies in the name of the public good clearly doesn’t understand the danger we’re in.

 

Ofcom adds some colour to ‘fairness’ campaign

It might sound like a political punchline, but the ‘Fairness Framework’ from Ofcom is starting to take shape, though whether it forces telco transparency remains to be seen.

The Fairness Framework is effectively incremental progress to address what some would suggest is an unfair dynamic between buyer and seller in the wider communications industry. While there is a gluttony of comparison websites which bill themselves as a means to cut-through the white-noise generated by the telcos, it is still an arduous campaign to find the best deal available, and then subsequently get out of current contracts.

Most would consider themselves above the risks and pitfalls of suspect and nefarious contracts, though campaigners believe this is not the case. In September last year, the UK Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) launched a super-complaint with the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) suggesting service providers over-charging renewing customers to bring in an extra £4.1 billion a year.

In today’s announcement, Ofcom has provided more detail on the ‘Fairness Framework’.

Firstly, Ofcom has be conducting a review as to how to create a mechanism to ensure clearer, fairer deals for people who pay for mobile services and handsets together. Final proposals will be made public over the next couple of weeks.

Secondly, the team is currently reviewing broadband pricing practices, attempting to understand why some pay more than others for similar or exactly the same services. Vulnerable members of society are the ones who at the greatest risk here. Another initiative ties into this area, attempting to force the telcos to provide clear, honest information for broadband shoppers. Ofcom is also attempting to introduce rules which will compel service providers to be more transparent when their initial contract is up and explain their best available deal.

Another initiative will allow mobile phone customers to switch provider with a text message, while there are plans underway to introduce a new compensation scheme to provide money back for broadband and landline customers when things go wrong.

For the moment, the majority of this announcement should be attributed to the ‘work in progress’ column. Some of these initiatives will be written into regulation sooner rather than later, though most will still have to be cast out for public consultation. This is a mid-year report card more than anything else.

That said, it’s not a bad thing. In opposition to the stance of the telcos, Ofcom is attempting to be as transparent as possible with its work.

This is the objective of Ofcom here; transparency. For years, the telcos have operated partly behind a curtain of obscurity. Contracts were complicated due to a lack of transparency, and this is what Ofcom is looking to tackle. It is nice to see progress is being made, but we’re not quite there yet.

Broadband universal service becomes a thing in the UK

UK telecoms operator Ofcom has officially launched something called the broadband ‘universal service obligation, that supposedly entitles everyone to decent broadband.

The minimum download speed required of a broadband connection under this scheme is 10 Mbps, which really shouldn’t be that much of a problem for Openreach, especially considering the obligation doesn’t kick-in until March of next year. Having said that there are apparently 600,000 homes and businesses that still don’t have broadband up to that standard.

Despite the fact that it’s the dominant broadband supplier in the UK, BT still seems to thing being chose by Ofcom to deliver this bare minimum is a big deal. “BT is very pleased to have been chosen by Ofcom to deliver the government’s promise to connect the UK,” said BT boss Philip Jansen. “It’s great news that the majority of homes and businesses in rural areas can choose a fixed wireless service from EE to solve the problem of slow broadband and get speeds way faster than 10Mbps.

“Through Openreach we are now extending our fibre broadband network to reach an additional 40,000 premises within the USO area for whom FWA is not the answer. We’ll continue to drive discussions with Ofcom, Government and industry to explore alternative options to connect up every property in the country and ensure no-one is left behind.”

“Connecting the UK with decent broadband is absolutely key to ensuring that Britain’s digital infrastructure is fit for the future,” said John Lamont MP, Chair of the All-Party Broadband and Communication Group. “Fixed Wireless Access is already transforming people’s lives, providing a fast and reliable service that means they can do everything from everyday online tasks like banking or shopping to streaming films or playing games. There’s still lots more to be done, but this is a positive step forward in the right direction.”

It’s interesting that even the MP is banging on about FWA, presumably having been asked to do so by BT. It makes sense that BT would favour this as a cheaper way of connecting remote locations, but it still reckons over 100,000 of those will be too costly to connect to qualify for this broadband USO without chipping in themselves. So, in summary, around half a million locations that don’t currently have at least 10 Mbps broadband will be able to demand it of BT next year.

Sharon White calls it a day at Ofcom

After four years of running the UK telecoms regulator Sharon White has decided she fancies a go at retail.

Ofcom has announced White will leave her current post as CEO of the regulator towards the end of this year in order to become Chairman of The John Lewis Partnership – a UK retail chain. They don’t have a replacement lined up but have half a year to dig someone up.

“Sharon has been an outstanding Chief Executive for Ofcom and will be missed by the whole organisation,” said Ofcom Chairman Lord Burns. “Under Sharon’s leadership, Ofcom has helped to deliver ultrafast broadband, widespread 4G mobile and now 5G, and became the first independent regulator of the BBC. She leaves Ofcom as a regulator with a relentless focus on the consumer interest; making sure people and businesses can get the best out of their communications services.”

“It’s been a huge privilege to lead Ofcom at a time when reliable, affordable communications have become essential,” said White. “I will leave behind an organisation that is dedicated in its mission to make communications work for everyone.”

On the whole White seems to have done a decent job in her time at Ofcom. She had to deal with things like the Openreach controversy, the 5G spectrum auctions and Three’s constant moaning and has done so with dignity and without any major mistakes. While she has left a solid platform for her successor, that person will have to deal with an industry in the middle of enormous change and in the centre of some of the biggest contemporary geopolitical issues.

UK CSPs sign-up to empty Ofcom ‘fairness’ initiative

Ofcom, the UK telecoms regulator, has persuaded all major UK communications service providers to promise to ‘put fairness first’.

As far as empty, ill-defined and vacuous statements of intent goes this is right up there. Ofcom drafted a bunch of commitments under the heading ‘Fairness for Customers, and got CSPs to sign on the dotted line. Of course they had no choice but to go along with the scheme as failure to do so would have resulted in catastrophic publicity, but there is little to indicate this is anything more than a token gesture.

You may be thinking the angle taken in this piece is a tad mean-spirited but let’s have a look at the substance of the announcement. The starting point has to be the operative term ‘fair’ Here are some dictionary definitions:

  • Treating people equally without favouritism or discrimination
  • Treating someone in a way that is right or reasonable, or treating a group of people equally and not allowing personal opinions to influence your judgment
  • Something or someone that is fair is reasonable, right, and just
  • Marked by impartiality and honesty : free from self-interest, prejudice, or favouritism

By these definitions all CSPs have committed to is to treat all their customers equally. If there was any evidence of them actively discriminating against any of them we would surely have heard of it by now so, as a fresh commitment, it’s totally redundant.

More likely is that Ofcom is using a definition of the word not supported by the major dictionaries, but popular among politicians, marketing professionals and small children. This is a catch-all concept designed to appeal to absolutely everyone by implying everything will be better as a result of becoming more fair.

Still think we’re being too harsh? Let’s have a look at the actual commitments then.

  1. Customers get a fair deal, which is right for their needs. Providers offer customers packages that fit their needs and have a fair approach to pricing. Prices are clear and easy to understand;
  2. Customers get the support they need when their circumstances make them vulnerable. Providers understand and identify the characteristics, circumstances and needs of vulnerable customers – such as vulnerability due to a disability, age, mental illness or having recently been bereaved – and act to give them fair treatment and equal access to services too;
  3. Customers are supported to make well-informed decisions with clear information about their options before, during, and at the end of their contract. Providers design and send communications in a way that reflects an understanding of how customers generally react to information so that they can understand and engage with the market;
  4. Customers’ services work as promised, reliably over time. If things go wrong providers give a prompt response to fix problems and take appropriate action to help their customers, which may include providing compensation where relevant. If providers can’t fix problems with core services they have promised to deliver within a reasonable period, customers can walk away from their contract with no penalty;
  5. Customers can sign up to, change and leave their services quickly and smoothly. Providers ensure that customers who are leaving do not face additional barriers or hassle compared to those who are signing up to new services;
  6. Customers can be confident that fair treatment is a central part of their provider’s culture. Companies can demonstrate that they have the right procedures in place to ensure customers are treated well. They keep these effective and up-to-date.

Points 1, 2 and 6 depend entirely on the ill-defined term ‘fair’, while the other three are merely restatements of obligations already imposed on CSPs by Ofcom, so what is new here? We asked Ofcom how it will be monitoring these ‘new’ commitments and what the consequences will be of any failures to adhere to them and got the following statement.

“Many of the commitments are already underpinned by existing consumer law and Ofcom’s rules, so we will monitor practices against those and we can take action where necessary. We will also monitor complaints we receive from customers – particularly on price and service quality. The providers will be asked to demonstrate their performance on fairness and we’ll publish a progress report next year.

“Where we have concerns about an industry practice that isn’t covered by existing rules, we will work with the relevant company to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. If we don’t see sufficient action, we will consider potential changes to our rules.”

The condensed version of that statement seems to be; “We’re keeping an eye on UK operators to make sure they’re following our rules.” While that’s good to know, it’s also kind of the default position for telecoms regulator isn’t it? The progress report next year will be worth reading, if only to finally see how Ofcom measures fairness.

“I welcome the commitments the providers have made, and the action they’re taking to ensure customers are treated fairly every step of the way,” said Ofcom Chief Exec Sharon White. “Great service cannot be optional. It has to be the norm. That hasn’t always happened in the past in broadband and mobile services, but there is now a growing belief from providers that putting customers first is paramount.”

“I’m pleased that all the major telecoms providers have signed up to Ofcom’s commitments today,” said UK Minister for Digital Margot James. “They will not only help consumers get fairer deals, but will support competition by making sure providers work to the same objectives and compete on standards.”

Possibly inspired by all this vague virtue-signalling, Virgin Media has announced its own promise to be a good CSP from now on. Specifically it takes the form of a new ‘service promise’ that will give unlimited mobile connectivity to anyone whose broadband stops working, so long as they get both from Virgin.

“We know how important it is for our customers to stay connected and that’s why Virgin Media’s new service promise offers peace of mind, no matter what happens,” said Jeff Dodds, Managing Director of Virgin Media.

“It’s a simple, transparent and straight-up commitment to our customers that we’ll keep them online with superfast unlimited 4G mobile data if they experience an issue with their broadband, plus they have the option of a next-day engineer appointment to get things fixed.”

We guess all these vows, pledges and oaths are better than nothing but only just. Furthermore if everyone’s suddenly promising to put the customer first then surely that implies they weren’t previously. The Ofcom thing just feels like a cheap way for regulators and politicians to make it look like they’re doing more than they are, using vague terms and obsolete aspirations. That doesn’t seem fair to us.