For the first time in the nine-year history of the CMA's annual survey, the quality of fixed line services in the UK was perceived by respondents to have declined.
In the same survey, respondents named quality of service as their top priority, giving it a 9.4 rating out of a possible 10.
"There is a marked downturn in perceived quality across the board. This might be a reflection of the fact that we are in a cost-cutting recession and people are becoming very conscious of what they are paying for and what they are getting," said Mark Smith, deputy director general of the CMA.
A sample of 562 respondents was asked to rate suppliers of fixed line services across 24 quality parameters ranging between 0 and 10, with 10 being the highest satisfaction level.
The average was 6.2, and compared unfavourably to last year's results when all suppliers fell within a band of 6.6 to 7.6.
The report reflected particularly badly on British Telecom and Cable & Wireless, which between them take the lion's share of the UK market. Both fell below the industry average, scoring 6.0 each.
The pattern of deterioration was repeated in mobile communications, with only Orange making an improvement on quality over the past year. BT fell below the industry benchmark again, scoring 6.0 against the 6.6 average.
The CMA reported that a lack of price transparency on fixed lines was a particular cause for concern, especially among BT users. Philip Low, managing director of Phillips Tarifica, a telecoms tariffs consultancy, said this perception coincided with the recent and widespread drive by all carriers to bundle services.
"Bundling has increased across all markets as a way for carriers to increase revenues. On one level these deals are presented as a discount, but probably are not," said Low. He also reported a recent increase in the numbers of enterprises seeking advice on how to benchmark cost and quality.
A mismatch between the low return on bandwidth and the high investment in it by carriers could be another reason for the reported downturn in quality, according to Mark Neild, a telecoms consultant with PA Consulting.
"I suspect increasing demand is not being met by investment in the infrastructure, particularly at choke points, such as interconnect nodes on international routes" said Neild.
Falling quality was the biggest surprise of the CMA survey, titled Communications Market 2001, Smith commented. The survey also reported increasing levels of investment in e-business and on the failure of GPRS to meet wireless broadband needs.