Rory Cellan-Jones

Broadband: Are you being served?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 9 Mar 09, 13:26 GMT

Reading Ed Richards' answers to your questions about broadband regulation, a couple of things strike me.

Firstly, it's clear that super-fast broadband - and how to get it to everyone who might want or need it - is arguably the most important issue now for the regulator.

But what also seems clear is that, for many broadband users, it's not the future that's the issue - it's the poor service that they're currently getting from their providers. And it's not at all clear that customers are being effectively served - either by the industry or by the regulator.

broadband mapWhen we did our Broadband Britain series last year, we broke all records in terms of audience response - in 48 hours, around 60,000 people plotted their broadband speeds and, in many cases, vented their frustration that they were not getting what they thought they'd been promised.

ofcomAnd, when we asked for questions for Ed Richards, the recurrent themes were frustrations about current speeds, the poor state of your local network and dodgy dealings by the providers.

The problem is that Ofcom is in some ways a victim of its own success - having delivered the competitive broadband market that was its aim, that market is so competitive that telecom companies seem to be cutting corners in a desperate attempt to win customers.

asaMr Richards was very eager to mention Ofcom's voluntary code on the advertising of broadband speed (we have no information yet on whether that is having an impact), but also keen to stress that deciding whether claims about speed were accurate was up the Advertising Standards Authority. And it turns out that customer complaints are nothing to do with him anyway.

oteloI didn't realise that until I took a look at Ofcom's website. At the top of a list of What We Do Not Do comes "disputes between you and your telecoms provider". That turns out to be the job of the Telecommunications Ombudsman - or Otelo. Feeling embarrassed that I'd never even heard of this body (how many of you have?), I headed for its most recent annual report. There I found that it had investigated nearly 5,000 complaints in the last year (2007/8), with a large proportion from one company - unnamed in the report.

There are high hurdles for getting your complaint heard by Otelo - your telecom supplier must have signed up to the scheme and has 12 weeks to resolve the issue before it can be passed to the ombudsman, although that period is being reduced to eight weeks.

And what were the big issues for those complaining? The annual report says that the common theme is poor service. That includes "erroneous transfer from another supplier" - the infamous practice known as "slamming" - and "loss of broadband or substantially reduced speed". And there is this paragraph about complaints over speed:

"...customers were promised high-speed broadband but the service failed to match either their resulting expectations or the company's claims. Claims were phrased in the terms of 'speeds up to 8Mb per second', which, while not inaccurate, were potentially misleading because the text of the advert failed to inform customers that only a relatively small percentage of subscribers could receive more than about 6Mbps and 50% would be able to receive less than 5Mbps."

So how many of those complaints about speed claims were ever resolved in the customer's favour - and were any sanctions imposed on companies? Otelo tell me it is not its role to impose general sanctions - that is Ofcom's job.

But in another area - slamming - it seems clear that just about every miscreant gets away with it. A document I've seen from Ofcom shows that in 2007, the regulator received 16,013 complaints about this practice - and presumably passed many of them on to Otelo. But over the same period, just one fine was imposed on a telecom company.

cisasAnd I've just learned that the whole business is even more complicated than I thought. There is another body you can complain to - CISAS, the Communications and Internet Services Adjudication Scheme. So my conclusion? If you feel that you have been mistreated or ripped off by your broadband, prepare for a long and complex journey through the regulatory maze.


  • Comment number 1.

    There seems to be far too many regulatory bodies.
    I checked the ASA's website - apparently if the claims about speed are made on the broadband company's own website, then its nothing to do with the ASA, you have to go to Trading Standards instead.
    No wonder why companies get away with hypothetical download rates and describing their service as "unlimited" - no one knows who to complain to.

  • Comment number 2.

    A great many complaints are also outside the remit of Cisas/Otelo since they are unlikely to wade in on complaints about poor speeds at peek times.

    It is surprising once you talk to people having the issues at how many can actually be resolved with a little guidance or explanation. In other words for a lot of people the poor speeds can be improved with changes at their end, for example recently had someone on the Virgin 50Meg service but was getting 0.5Meg type speeds, and it just needed a setting altering on the PC (RWIN for the curious).

  • Comment number 3.

    I am so sorry that you have never heard of Otelo - we've been successfully working to resolve complaints between consumers and communications providers since 2003. From the same report you refer to you will note that 104,000 contacts were received by Otelo during 2007/8. This figure will be about the same for 2008/9.

    Most of these people have found the details for Otelo or CISAS on the back of a bill under the section headed - what to do if you have a complaint. Perhaps you don't have a bill? Then go to your service providers website and look for the area which describes how the company will try to resolve your complaint. This should also include information about how and when to contact Otelo.

    I'm sure you will agree that the company should be allowed some time to try to resolve the problem before the Ombudsman is asked to help.

    Otelo can handle any complaint where the service provider has indicated to the consumer that it has reached its final position, this could be one day into the complaint!

    The safety net of 12 weeks is there to catch those complaints where this has not been possible. Consumers who contact Otelo prematurely are always given advice on how best to complain to the company they are experiencing the problem with, and told to come back to the ombudsman if resolution cannot be found.

    On the whole, those who have used Otelo have found the process to be swift and easy to use - I suggest you take a look at the customer satisfaction survey's on Otelo's website.

    Rory, I am disappointed that you feel so confused about how to complain to a service provider. Lets try to help you be a bit more informed! I invite you speak with the Chief Ombudsman, Elizabeth France to discuss our approach. If not, perhaps you would like to come to the launch of this year's annual report launch?

    Andrew Bradley
    Communications Manager

  • Comment number 4.

    I wonder how many of the "O" acronym groups are set up to protect the consumer. All seem to be very much skewed in favour of the industry the claim to regulate. If Rory’s post is true, then jumping a series of hurdles just to be able to get a complaint heard is bad news for the consumer. The process needs to be far simpler, with real teeth at the end when a complain is upheld.

  • Comment number 5.

    The problem of pathetic rural broadband speeds wasn't even asked?

    If all these regulators/ombudsmen/jobsworths (except for one) were wound up, then there may be some money in the pot to assist rural users in getting up to 8meg broadband, the whole notion is of 100meg is pointless, until the country has this basic level of access.

    Mobile access isn't the answer as their services are even more variable than the appalling ageing copper network, that ofcom saw fit not to oversee its upgrade

  • Comment number 6.

    To my mind, this is the standard story of all deregulation; set up a myriad of regulators to issue reports, discussion documents and guidance, providing the semblance of control, then sit back and allow the companies to do what they like. The same principle applies to "consultation" when done by govt. or a council.

    Solution, find the best of a bad lot, if you have a problem complain in the pub, and after a couple of pints of Adnams it'll be ok.

  • Comment number 7.

    Interesting comment from Otelo themselves there. I've never heard of them before, either - but then I've never really had to complain and my ISP seems fine (Virgin Media).

    But it does seem to be a bit of a regulatory minefield with different bodies responsible for different aspects of the broadband market. I feel this blog post deserves to be written up as a larger feature, perhaps with Rory or someone else taking up Otelo's invitation.

    There's obviously a problem with ISPs in this country. Eventually the free market will ensure only the best survive, but there still needs to be support for the consumer.

  • Comment number 8.

    I think one of the confusions about regulatory bodies is that we have an outmoded view of who they are and what their purpose is.

    The government's policy of 'light touch' regulation has recast them as chamber of commerce like bodies that are there to facilitate the development of the business sectors that they 'regulate'.

    They appear to act more as consultants to the businesses, than champions of the consumer, on the axiom that what is good for business is, de facto, good for the people.

  • Comment number 9.

    Surely someone like Sky could offer a fanatastic Satalite internet service? It's another option and the more competition the better the product and value usually.... at least then we'd have ADSL/2, Cable, Satalite, WIMAX and 3G all pushing each other to ever increasing speeds and lower pricing.

  • Comment number 10.

    @MMPR Ah, but isn't the competative pressures of increasing speed and decreasing prices what got us into the mess in the first place? Profit margins are so squeezed that ISP's can't afford to build their networks to cope with the demand, but to put their prices up would be fatal. You see this every time a new ISP pops up with a lower price point, the first 3-6 months are great but as soon as their network becomes saturated the service takes a dive. Adding even more competition to the current market is not the answer, and satellite is a bad option anyway given the latency and lag issues. Less competitive pricing would give the ISP's more breathing space and capital to expand their networks and the ability to concentrate on competing on quality instead.

    As for the network itself, this is a classic case of a goverment funded infrastructure project being needed. BT's recent demand that they would only build FTC if allowed to make a big enough profit proves we are currently hostage to the commercial market demands of what is best for a single company, not for the economy as a whole. If the goverment had retained the network in publc hands to be run at a cost recovery basis with commercial operators all having equal access to it, then a major infrastructure project like this could have been undertaken for the public good at a one-off loss.

  • Comment number 11.

    I think I can guess who the unnamed company is that received te most Otelo complaints, but it would be great if you could get it confirmed for us. If they refuse, citing commercial confidentiality, remind them that they are supposed to be protecting us and not the industry and we have a right to know who we are most at risk from.

  • Comment number 12.

    I too must mirror the comments made by my counterpart at Otelo, as CISAS has also been working to resolve thousands of complaints between and communications providers since 2003.

    All communication providers that operate in the residential market and small business market (less than 10 employees) are required to be a member of an Ofcom approved Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) scheme. CISAS & Otelo are the only two approved schemes. Both schemes have a list of member companies on their websites, so if you cannot find them on one then they should be on the other.

    CISAS is designed to be quick and easy to use and full details of what we do can be found on our website. Our rules and information for customers guide have been awarded the Crystal Mark by the Plain English Campaign. So it’s easier than you might think!

    Neal Hawkley
    Customer Relations Manager

  • Comment number 13.

    Every question put to Mr Richards was met with a very similar pre-prepared answer, either it was "we're working with the ISPs" or "That's political take it to the government".

    So that's the ISPs giving Mr Richards and co. the secret handshake so that they get their way and Mr Richards and co. passing any difficult bucks onto the government, where they conveniently get forgotten about (or lost on the tube).

    What happened to the customer always being right? Does the customer have any rights to actually get what they sign up for these days? It seems not.

    In the far east they have far better communications services than we do, why? Because for the most part it's all state funded as I understand it.

    It's just a shame that Labour and the Conservatives before them are/were so shortsighted that they can't see that by allowing private companies to effectively run this country they are harming it's developement, especially in the area of the internet and associated communications.

  • Comment number 14.


    The recent report from Ofcom on average speeds is a good example where, rather than informing customers, they are playing their part in the propaganda war based on speed.

    There is no truth in averages. For those working from home, your need to maintain perfromance for key applications during busy periods. Average is meaningless.

    To do so you need to know the actual resources or budget of resources the ISP have applied when building your service. Is there a peak hour allocation per user of 10 Kbps (the size of an old HTML page) or 30Kbps per second.

    How does their network behave at various load levels?

    I've had a go at explaining that here -

    There was something really fascinating that Ofcom did not publish but was evident in the data. It was more important than speed. It was that for a given amount of traffic it looked as if the networks behaved predictably. This is hugely important to Digital Britain as it means critical services can run on the internet provided networks are not saturated.

    Identifying thise saturation points (where services become unpredictable) for each network is a true measure of quality.

    More information available if you need it.

  • Comment number 15.

    The comments by the representatives from Otela and CISAS are depressingly predictable. I have one suggestion: let the broadband provision of Messrs Bradley and Hawkley be disrupted and unusable for 12 weeks, and then we'll see just how keen they are on endorsing a nice long waiting period, which companies routinely use to stall and generally fail their customers, who are still being forced to pay during that time.

    Industry regulation and consumer protection in this country is a joke. All this talk about giving companies a fair chance to resolve disputes shows pretty clearly whose side the regulators are on; what about giving consumers a fair chance to have their broadband provision restored during the same period?

    Consumers want problems with their internet fixed in 48hrs, not 8 or 12 weeks. Get real.


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