Ofcom chief warns telecoms firms to up their game

Sharon White - Chief Executive at Ofcom. Picture: Contributed
Sharon White - Chief Executive at Ofcom. Picture: Contributed
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The new chief executive of Ofcom has issued a stark warning to Britain’s communications firms that they need to up their game – or face the consequences.

In her first speech since taking over as head of the regulator, Sharon White told a conference run by consumer group Which? that while customer service levels in the industry have improved, people still find it too difficult to change provider and cancel contracts and many are frustrated with customer service.

She also unveiled a new package of measures aimed an ensuring a better service for consumers.

Ms White said: “When Ofcom was established, access to a reliable internet connection and mobile phone was a ‘nice to have’. Now it is essential to the functioning of the economy, to the way people work and live their lives.

“Improving delivery to consumers doesn’t just fall at the feet of the regulator. The delivery of first class communications services is primarily the responsibility of providers.”

Ms White said that Ofcom has secured a strengthened code of practice on broadband speeds with the UK’s largest providers including BT, EE, Plusnet, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media. The new version of the code improves consumers’ right to leave their broadband contract when speeds fall below acceptable levels.

Under the revised rules, new customers signing up will be able to walk away from providers during the whole term of the contract if they suffer problems that cannot be resolved.

She said the organisation would also next month outline plans to make it easier for mobile phone customers to change provider and will also improve the process for millions of customers changing broadband and landline provider.

From 20 June, a new process will place responsibility for switching between landline and broadband providers who use the Openreach network – such as BT, EE, Sky and TalkTalk – with the company the customer is moving to.

She added: “We have set the bar high for ourselves but also for industry. If we deliver then everyone benefits: consumers and citizens of the country and the businesses who deliver the services we regulate.

“Where markets don’t work well enough – or where competition alone isn’t enough to secure good outcomes for consumers – then we have powers to intervene.”

If companies do not comply with regulations, Ofcom has the power to step in and can fine firms which continue to flaunt the rules.

Ofcom last year fined telecoms firm Three £250,000 over its complaints handling processes. Its also fined BT £800,000 for breaching requirements on text relay services for deaf customers.

Ms White was a Treasury official before taking over the £275,000-a-year role from Ed Richards, who led the watchdog for eight years.

Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said he welcomed the “very clear commitment” made by Ms White.

“Unreliable broadband speeds drive consumers crazy, so we also welcome the regulator telling providers to give better information on the speeds customers will realistically achieve, and to let people leave their contracts without penalty if they don’t get what is promised,” he said.

“We hope the rapidly changing communications industry responds positively, recognising that providers must raise their game in providing services that most people now see as essential to their daily lives.”