Coronavirus: Ofcom relaxes ISPs’ broadband obligations

UK comms regulator loosens operating guidelines on broadband operators to prevent driving additional traffic to call centres and not punish inability to meet repair targets

In its latest act to support the UK’s broadband infrastructure, and in a move that will likely bring as much cheer to the operator community as it may worry users, UK broadcast and telecoms regulator Ofcom has announced that in the current circumstances it will be relaxing rules regarding end-of-contract notifications, speed guarantees and automatic compensation for internet service providers (ISPs).

Outlining the changes, Ofcom said keeping communications going across the UK had never been more important, because right now home phone, broadband and mobile services are playing a vital role as the UK public adapts to the way to new ways of working in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak. It added that broadband and phone companies are focused on keeping their networks running as demands increase, and prioritising access to safety-of-life communications.

The regulator went on to welcome the commitments of the UK’s main broadband and mobile companies in helping customers during the pandemic. That is, commitments from BT/EE, Virgin Media, Sky, Openreach, TalkTalk, O2, Vodafone, Three, Hyperoptic, Gigaclear and KCOM to work with customers who find it difficult to pay their bill as a result of Covid-19 to ensure they are treated fairly and appropriately supported. In addition, the providers are removing data allowance caps on all current fixed broadband services.

The providers also agreed to offer some new mobile and landline packages to ensure people are connected, with some of the packages including data boosts at low prices and free calls from their landline or mobile. All providers will ensure that vulnerable customers or those self-isolating receive alternative methods of communication wherever possible if priority repairs to fixed broadband and landlines cannot be carried out.

Rules relaxed

With broadband and mobile firms focusing their efforts on keeping their customers connected, particularly those that are vulnerable and depend on their services the most, Ofcom applauded their efforts as “absolutely the right approach”.

In that regard, Ofcom recognised that such work may affect the companies’ ability to comply with some of its rules during this time. To that end, it has now written to the providers explaining that, going forward, it would take account of the current unique circumstances when enforcing rules.

In one example, Ofcom said it appreciated that activities such as end-of-contract notifications, which providers are required to send when customers are approaching the end of their minimum contract term, might be driving additional traffic to call centres at a time when organisations need to prioritise calls from vulnerable people and those who are having difficulties staying connected. So, while still encouraging providers to send these notifications as normal, it said it would take a pragmatic approach to compliance with such rules, recognising the significant challenges providers are facing at this time and the steps they need to take to respond to the impact of the coronavirus.

In another example of how its codes of practice on broadband speeds and automatic compensation will be affected, the regulator said broadband providers which have signed up to the broadband speeds code of practice might at this time be unable to fix problems within the required 30-day window for customers who are getting less than their minimum guaranteed speed. This could well be because of a shortage of staff or because engineers are not able to visit people’s homes. For this reason, Ofcom said it had been in close contact with providers to understand how they are meeting these requirements.

“Under the current circumstances, Ofcom is right to prioritise keeping the country connected. However, it means customers are not as protected as they once were. ISPs are under more pressure and users could notice a drop in performance with their broadband connection”
Alex Tofts, Broadband Genie

Given that providers may not be able to carry out repairs, install new services and carry out home visits as they normally would, Ofcom added that for the period that such unique circumstances applied, providers will not need to pay automatic compensation where they are unable to meet the requirements for repairs, installations and home visits in the scheme. This, Ofcom said, was in line with an exception in the scheme that applies to “civil emergencies”.

Best service

As it made its announcement, Ofcom stressed that it didn’t take these decisions lightly and expected operators to continue to provide the best possible service and do what is right by their customers, particularly those who are vulnerable. It added that they needed to communicate any decision not to pay compensation clearly to customers and must also stop charging customers who are without service.

Ofcom concluded by warning that while it acknowledged the difficult circumstances that telecoms companies were in, that did not mean customers should be exploited. It said that if it saw evidence that was happening, it would step in and take action.

Yet despite making the guarantees, UK broadband user groups warned of a possible slip in standards of service.

“Under the current circumstances, Ofcom is right to prioritise keeping the country connected. However, it means customers are not as protected as they once were,” remarked Alex Tofts, broadband expert at Broadband Genie, an independent UK comparison service for home broadband, TV, landline and mobile broadband services.

“ISPs are under more pressure and users could notice a drop in performance with their broadband connection. Customers are still able to shop around for a better deal, but fewer engineers and restrictions on home visits could impact the switching process,” he said.

“If your home connection is struggling or you want to be prepared for an outage, alternatives are available. Mobile broadband packages can give users superfast speeds on a 4G connection and providers will send everything you need through the post to get you up and running.”

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