Tougher action from government and Ofcom on broadband providers? Pigs might fly!

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan July 30, 2017
Summary:
Broadband is a utility, so why isn't it treated like one by service providers? UK MPs are demanding tougher action from government and regulators and automatic compensation for beleaguered customers. Fat chance!

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The chances of action

One of the most horrifying insights I ever had into BT's attitude towards its customers was when I moved house a few years ago and tried to get the existing BT broadband connection there transferred into my name.

Not possible, of course. The working connection had to be disconnected, then two weeks later (or thereabouts) it could be reconnected in my name. In a series of increasingly bad-tempered phone calls to BT, I asked why I was able to swap over gas, electricty and water to my name, but not the broadband.

The answer was chilling:

Broadband is not a utility - and it never will be.

Well, 57 legislators in the UK government would beg to differ, stating in a powerful new report that:

Broadband is increasingly considered to be akin to any other utility such as water or gas…However, unlike in other utilities markets, there are still no minimum standards for broadband customer services, nor regulations governing compensation payments.

With that in mind, the Broadband 2.0 report  calls on the UK government to “finally introduce minimum standards for the broadband sector” , as well as demanding that regulator Ofcom ups its game when it to dealing with service providers such as BT, Sky and Virgin.

The report, published by the British Infrastructure Group of MPs (BIG), chaired by Conservative MP Grant Shapps, demands the introduction of automatic compensation for customers as a result of providers not delivering broadband speeds, noting that as many as 6.7 million UK broadband connections may not receive download speeds above the government’s proposed minimum of 10 Mbps.

The report also points out the labyrinthine complexity that currently characterises the making of a complaint to a service provider. Shapps said:

Broadband customers are currently faced with protracted complaints procedures if something goes wrong with their service. Typically, customers are required to lodge a formal complaint with their provider and then subsequently escalate their complaint to the Ombudsman if they are dissatisfied with the provider’s response. These unnecessarily complex complaints procedures are compounded by the sheer differences in approaches taken by broadband providers to dealing with customer queries.

Apologists

Inevitably the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport,responsible for the digital economy, defaulted to its standard role as apologist for the likes of BT, trotting out the party line that:

Almost 95% of the UK can now get superfast broadband, but we know millions of homes and businesses have not yet chosen to upgrade. We want everyone to have access to fast broadband, and the universal service obligation will make sure that no-one is left behind. It's a better offer than any compensation package as it places a legal obligation on providers to deliver the speeds that families and businesses need.

Trouble is, the BIG report names and shames here, noting that Matt Hancock, the Minister for Digital and Culture, is on record, during the passage of the Digital Economy Bill through Parliament last year, backing up the idea that:

Broadband  is now a utility rather than a ‘nice to have ’.

Meanwhile the regulator Ofcom blandly states:

We share concerns that broadband must improve, and we're already taking firm, wide-ranging action to protect customers - including new plans for automatic compensation, faster repairs and installations, and ensuring providers commit to giving accurate speed information to customers. We also provide robust, comprehensive data on broadband take-up and availability, through regular reports and interactive consumer tools.

As for the service provider industry, the reaction from the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) is to issue a similarly anodyne holding statement

ISPA is supportive of everyone being able access good broadband. A number of ISPA members are helping meet this challenge by rolling out broadband using a variety of technologies and services across the UK. Underpinning market rollout, we also support the creation of a broadband Universal Service Obligation, passed into law in May 2017 as part of the Digital Economy Act.

In further recognition of the importance of being online, ISPs and Ofcom have been working on a set of voluntary proposals that will provide consumers with automatic compensation for network outages. The scope and detail of these proposals are currently being consulted upon but this, alongside existing consumer measures, such as the free-to-consumer alternative dispute resolution, means consumers have effective ways of seeking redress.

This wooly-waffle from government, regulator and ISP associtation leads to BIG stating the obvious:

It is unacceptable that there is still no industry-wide compensation policy to protect the rights of broadband customers. This is particularly concerning, as both the government and Ofcom have acknowledged that internet access is now considered akin to a utility, as essential as water or gas services.

In other words, Minister/Ofcom, enough with the platitudes and take some damn action over this national scandal before it’s too late!

My take

I’m writing this article in my local Starbucks as it’s Sunday and that’s when my home broadband connection of “up to 20 Mbps” collapses to around 1 Mbps, if I’m lucky. At no point in the week does it rise above 4 Mbps. I’ve had argument after argument with BT over this, always following the same pattern of various stages of conversation, ending in BT saying it’s nothing to do with them, it’s all Openreach’s fault.

As for compensation - never once been offered. What does get offered is that BT will consider, possibly,  lowering the cost of my monthly payment, but only if I sign up for a new two year contract. At no point is there any suggestion that BT might improve the service, you’ll note - the message is simple: OK, your service sucks, we don’t care, now sign a new deal.

And I’m locked in with BT as they’re the only option open to me in my building. Now, that’s clearly my choice to live where I do, but said building is in the very centre of a major city on the South Coast of England, not some remote area of the countryside. The idea that in 2017 the streets around me are stuck on single digit speed broadband is insane.

I’m aware that similar tales of woe can be heard from users of other providers, although when I hear colleagues complain that they’re only getting 30 Mbps from Virgin Media, for example, it’s cold comfort!

Trouble is, I can’t see how things are going to get better. Regulator Ofcom is utterly spineless, while the DCMS is effectively a lobbyist arm of the service provider industry. Both cower in fear of the monopolistic grip that BT/Openreach has over the UK’s national infrastructure and don’t dare poke the tiger too much.

The so-called Universal Service Obligation (USO) of 10 Mbps that was built into the rushed-through Digital Economy Bill has been touted  as a victory for users by the likes of Digital Minister Hancock, But it’s a complete red herring. As the ISPA notes in its defensive posturings:

This will give everyone a legal right to request a 10Mbps broadband connection.

Request. No guarantee you’re going to get one. You can ask nicely, but if BT says no, then…

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Yesterday Hancock was busy bigging up the latest gambit from BT - an offer to meet the 10Mbps USO so that the government doesn't need to go to all the bother of introducing a regulatory requirement over minimum speeds.

It's a timely offer, coming as it does 24 hours after the highly-publicised and fiercely critical BIG report. In fact, the timing is so happily coincidental that a cynic might suspect it's intended as a move by DCMS to try to take back the headlines from BIG with the help of BT.  Perish the thought...

Anyway, BT CEO Gavin Patterson is quoted in the DCMS announcement of the USO proposal as saying:

We are pleased to make a voluntary offer to deliver the Government’s goal for universal broadband access at minimum speeds of 10Mbps.

That he emphasises that this is a "voluntary offer" and not something BT has been compelled to do is an interesting insight into the balance of power here.

The DCMS statement admits that the BT "voluntary offer" might mean no regulated requirement for a USO, which might be raised over time, or at least kicking that prospect into the long grass - which would be rather handy for BT:

No decision has been taken, and the Government will carefully weigh the merits of the two approaches...The Government will now work with BT over the coming months to develop the proposal - which, if it is accepted, will be legally-binding.

Culture Secretary Karen Bradley said:

We warmly welcome BT’s offer and now will look at whether this or a regulatory approach works better for homes and businesses.

To which I say...well played, BT, well played indeed. Not quite check mate, but very nicely done - and they're probably going to fall for it, path of least resistance and all that.

With Brexit looming, the health of the UK’s digital economy needs to be an absolute priority. My message is simple to the DCMS and Ofcom - get on with your jobs and do something to enforce genuine change on the service providers instead of being grateful for whatever concessionary scraps fall from the table. Act for the UK, not for the BT shareholders.

Chances of that happening? Watch out - low-flying pigs incoming...