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Ofcom: calling for a cultural change in the telecoms industry

Fixing broadband

Does the telecoms market work for you, or should providers be upping their game? Sharon White, Chief Executive of Ofcom, joins us to outline a view of the current telecoms market and a vision for change.

I joined Ofcom two years ago, and Which? was generous enough to host my first speech. My aim then, as now, was to explain how consumers lie at the heart of everything Ofcom does.

Essential services

Two years ago we said that broadband and mobile had become essential services. As much a necessity as gas, water or electricity.

We even found that young people would happily do without hot water than be without Facebook (!). Yet around 5% of homes and offices can’t get decent broadband of 10Mbps.

And while mobile broadband is being rolled out, 28% of UK homes and offices can’t get a good indoor 4G signal from every operator.

The government has set out a clear policy objective to widen broadband and mobile coverage across the UK. The Digital Economy Bill includes a new ‘universal service obligation’ (USO) for broadband. The USO complements the government’s pre-existing commitments to make superfast broadband available to 95% of homes and offices by the end of 2017, and to ensure that 90% of the UK has a mobile signal over the same timeframe.

These sit alongside Ofcom rules to ensure that 98% of homes and offices get a good indoor 4G signal from at least one mobile operator, also by the end of this year.

The government has said it will go further, setting out its policy objectives for the whole of the telecoms sector; which I very much welcome.

Regulation in telecoms

Ofcom also has a supporting role through regulation to ensure that people in the UK get the best from their communications services.

Competition brings greater choice, innovation and lower bills. And some in the industry argue that in furthering the interests of consumers, we should limit our activity to promoting competition.

But promoting competition can’t be the sum of our activity, and that’s because competition has its limits.

Firstly, competition is generally lower in rural areas, simply because fewer customers make it hard for operators to turn a profit.

Secondly, while people tend to shop around on price, or for a particular product they like, they don’t tend to make choices based on customer service – allowing operators to get away with poor service.

Thirdly, millions of consumers, particularly vulnerable and elderly people, don’t shop around at all.

This has created a widening gulf between expectations and what the industry is actually delivering.

Which? has found that certain telecoms providers dominate the list of worst-rated companies for customer service – behind even some banks. This should be a concern for us all.

Which?’s new campaign, Fix Bad Broadband, rightly highlights one particular failure – the mismatch between the speeds people think they are buying, and what they actually end up getting.

Moving forward

Ofcom has three important roles beyond competition:

  • empowering people so they can make informed decisions;
  • protecting consumers, especially those who are vulnerable;
  • and taking firm action when providers fail their customers.

We will empower consumers with better information, protect those who are failed by the market and take action against companies who fail their customers.

But ultimately, we want to see a cultural change in the telecoms industry. We want all operators consistently to put customers at the heart of their businesses.

A successful telecoms market should mean Openreach, not Ofcom, setting its own stretching service standards. Automatic compensation should rarely be necessary, because there are few failures in the first place. And fewer fines issued, because companies routinely put their customers first.

I appreciate that there’s a long way to go. But with commitment from the industry – and appropriate action from the government and the regulator – things can get better.

This guest contribution is from Sharon White, Chief Executive of Ofcom, and taken from her speech at an event with Which? on 12 April 2017. All views expressed here are Sharon’s own and not necessarily those shared by Which?.


Although the Government said that they were upgrading the internet to help rural areas, we are at the “end of the line”, so although we are connected to a box, we won’t be activated for fibre until 2020. Our download speed 1.19 Mbps and our upload speed is587.44 kbps (which is quite good today). We pay the same as everyone else, but can’t get good deals without having fibre. Id like to see poor speeds get a lower charge, but sure that will never happen.

After switching to Virgin from BT LESS than a year ago my household has “enjoyed” no less than 6 broadband and telephone No Service issues,some taking as much as 2 weeks to resolve – one occasion we waited for an engineer to arrive but nobody came (10 day wait for engineer appointment) so we called to see why nobody had attended – the reply was,staggeringly,that the appointment had been cancelled because “nobody had answered the telephone to confirm the engineers visit” – when idiots such as this are employed by the firms there really is NOT a chance in a million of a successful outcome – the ONLY resolution is to leave,yet again,and find another provider.

I have changed internet suppliers several times, I live in BN2 area of Brighton, I am informed the sub station is too far away, I oftern get a notice up, NO INTERNET, it is not always that there isn’t any, often it is so little there as not to register & takes an age just to get the e mails up, as for down loading a video clip, it can take over 3 minutes to down load 5.0 m clip, I have complained to Plus net they were the worst & never replied, the best were Sky & have sent BT & their own people but it is better for a couple of weeks then back again to the rubbish downloading

Giuseppe (Joe) Turi says:
25 April 2017

‘sometimes’, ‘at least from one’. Anything less than 100% is poor performance and unacceptable. Why 100% of 100% cannot be achieved ? We have been promised it and we are paying for it through our noses (at least I am).

Tony says:
25 April 2017

You don’t go to the supermarket to but a car any more than you go to a train station to buy a car ! BT are primarily a landline phone system and EE a mobile phone company …… so why choose them or those like them to provide your internet connectivity ? If you want good internet, use an Internet Service Provider (the clue is in their name) who only specialise in Internet — if you use a “jack of all trades” supplier who provide everything but none of it very well then expect a mediocre service & don’t complain about what you get. If you want ‘cheap’ connectivity then be happy with a cheap service with issues.

10+ years with Zen Internet. £35 a month, 9/76 (upload/download) speeds at all times of the day, unscripted support who KNOW what they are talking about & fix issues fast (not that they happen much – twice in 10 years) — Conclusion : You get what you pay for after you’ve chosen a supplier with a good solid reputation

Lara Croft says:
25 April 2017

We’re customers of Talktalk and apparently do have fibre, though you wouldn’t know it. I’ve complained about the so-called service a number of times – we’re now on our third router (all have been exactly the same model) – each time, the call centre operative tells me they will send us a “new, SUPER router” which is never super, never better than the previous one supplied. I have an on-going complaint which is going to the ombudsman as the next step. At one point, when I complained to Talktalk customer service about the Wifi signal dropping constantly and not being consistent as a decent provision of service, the operative told me that “wifi is not a guaranteed service that we provide, it is just a ‘nice-to-have’ part of the Talktalk broadband offering”. To be sure of a connection, I should only be using a wired connection for all my devices. I asked them to put that in writing to me but that has never arrived.

Mo White says:
25 April 2017

I’m with BT and I think they are deliberately slowing things down in order to get you to upgrade. My BT mail is so so slow, the only things that move are the numerous ads on the page. The ads work quicly but nothing else does.

Drayton Bird says:
25 April 2017

What is Ofcom? What is its point? What has it achieved? What would be lost if it were not there? Another body that costs money, has no power and provides jobs for people who know people who know the right people.

I have recently moved from TalkTalk as there backup service is so bad. I reported a line fault, they insisted that they send one of their engineers out to check it there was anything in the house was at fault. Told them that I was an electronic design engineer throughout my working career and I had been with the Pc since its innovation by IBM. This fell on deaf ears, engineer came out, the problem was TalkTalk in their infinite wisdom had changed their address protocol for the router. I could not use my ones that I have used for years. Still had problems with the line as it was intermittent, Open Reach came out and could find nothing wrong (as the faut was not there at the time). The line went totally dead with no phone or internet. I contacted them and told them I had no phone or internet and that I now had a permanent line fault. Every time I phoned they told me it was being investigated by there team, this went on for weeks. I then contacted another ISP and told them the problem, they said no problem we can get an engineer out and install a 2nd line. Pointing out that if there was no problem with my line it would cost me £43. This was on the Wednesday, the OpenReach engineer came on the FRiday installed the second line and informed me that my original line had 2 faults, one being in the underground cable. Now have excellent internet, I feel that both OFCOM and Advertising Standards do not have the power or will not use it. There are companies out there that cannot support their claims and as such should be banned from advertising until such times as they are sorted out. Complaints are growing exponentially because they cannot keep up with existing clients.

This Conversation is entering its third week and there has still been no feedback from Ofcom to the scores of questions and complaints that have been raised by contributors. This is not fair to the many people who expect Which? to provide answers to questions either directly or through the guest writers who have been invited to present a Conversation piece. It must create a poor impression for new entrants to the community who are probably wondering why they bothered. The experience of residents in all corners of the UK seems to be completely at variance to what we are being told by Ofcom and the operators on both broadband and mobile services so some explanations are long overdue.

I would like to see the Convo editors require that an author replies, or gets someone to reply, to all legitimate questions that are asked – whether the authors are guest or staff. It is very frustrating to be ignored, and to have a conversation hindered. Perhaps @patrick would like to give a view?

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I am continuing the discussion in this thread in the Conversation “Welcome to the new Which? Conversation” as it would probably not be appropriate to air my views as a digression in this Conversation. See : https://conversation.which.co.uk/technology/welcome-to-the-new-which-conversation/#comment-1484068

Whilst you have a corrupt Tory government whos’ mantra is ‘Greed is Good’ you will always get ripped -off. The Tories are not going to upset their paymasters.

Our Broadband service is provided by Virgin and we think we are having a fast and reliable broadband service. But then there might be better providers in this industry, but we are not aware.

If you are experiencing fast and reliable service with your present supplier I would not look elsewhere, Francoise.

Goman says:
25 April 2017

Just stop messing about and get our telecoms renationalised. If our politicians spent only a fraction of the time and money they are wasting on the Brexit fiasco and applied their minds to sorting out this mess, we would all be a lot better off!

I regularly have to wait for a connection even though I am paying for fibre optic with Talk Talk. Trying to find out what is wrong has been a nightmare, and getting to talk to someone speaking clear English is virtually impossible, that is if you can get through to someone in the first place.

26 April 2017

My provider is good, service wise; but my high speed fibre is not. The main culprit is bt and its policy of not correcting problems and not upgrading phone lines. The high speed fibre cable goes to a junction box a mile away from my house and then continues on to me by the piece of damp string provided by bt. Ten + years ago the junction box had twice as many cables as it was designed for and a hole in the lid, where the rain gets in; to drip on my contacts. This problem has not been attended to by bt, despite numerous reports from bt engineers. This failure of bt may well be the reason for slow speeds everywhere; especially for us rural dwellers.

I agree with every sentiment you have expressed about BT. Every quarter when my bill is due my connection starts to play up worse than any other time. My contract run out about 2 years ago (new estate so BT have the monopoly more or less). The blighters tried telling me last quarter that my router must be broken therefore a new one can be sent to me for the price of £10.00 + VAT and postage & packaging costs, other than than would I consider a new contract whereby I could then have their fast broadband… My IT specialist friend was listening to the conversation and put the operator right, hey ho 24 hours later my broadband was up & running and I received a text (still have) stating they found the problem at their end. If it hadn’t been for my friend I could have ended up being in a contract that would not be fit for purpose or out of pocket for purchasing another router. Oh & before I finish, BT did offer to come out and inspect equipment and if they felt I had tampered or no problem detected I would be charge around £100!

Brian Stewart says:
26 April 2017

Hi all. I upgraded to BT infinity 2 thinking I would be getting a faster download speed. It did seem faster. Then it came to my renewal date not long ago and with it came the fantastic new hub that is the strongest wifi signal ever? Sadly not, since I have had nothing but bother can’t remember how many time I’ve rung BT about the fact that since connecting this hub wifi has gone down to 20.30 Mbps so I’m effectively paying money for nothing. They say there is nothing wrong with the line or the hub and want me to pay £120 for an engineer to come out as they say it must be my equipment as they have run a test to that fact. But I had speeds up to 76 before this hub arrived and they wanted the old hub back or I would gladly change back. I am a pensioner that has lost £45 a week off my pension and could never afford the £120 engineers fee so it would seem that I’m stuck paying something for nothing. BT wouldn’t recommend them or their customer service to any one.

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This is Ofcom’s Conversation and we are still waiting for Ofcom to clarify the many points that have arisen in respect of the faster broadband programme. It would be useful if Openreach contributed since it is that company that is doing the infrastructure roll-out, at government expense, but it would be best if Ofcom told us first what they have specified in terms of coverage and speed, how they have determined who will be excluded from the 95% coverage target, and whether it really will all be done by the end of 2017. I raised these points on 14 & 16 April and until they are clarified there is a risk of speculating and coming to the wrong conclusions. Ofcom is in charge of the programme and should by now have an estimate of the likely achievement date. BT is now just one of several telecom service providers whose customers’ signals are carried through Openreach’s cables and wires so although BT’s comments might be interesting I doubt if they will come forward in view of the competitive situation. I have particular concerns over the difference between what Ofcom say and what users experience – on the face of it that seems to be a gaping chasm but there might be acceptable explanations.

People who want higher speeds for commercial purposes will presumably have to pay for it, but following Ofcom’s recent liberation of the underground cables and overhead wires [making them available to any approved TSP] and requiring a lower wholesale carrying price it should be easier and quicker to get access to high speed broadband from a choice of providers.

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Duncan – as I said in a previous comment on this point of sharing infrastructure: most of it was installed by the GPO and British Telecom long before BT was privatised, largely at public expense, so it is a national asset and should be used to the optimum level. Ofcom wants the other service providers to use the underground ducting and overhead structures to provide services and it wants Openreach to cut its carrying charges to make it more economical. That all seems fair enough to me.

People know about Openreach – their vans are all over the place but you never see a BT vehicle because they are now just a service provider like Virgin Media, TalkTalk, Vodafone and others. They still have a dominant position in that market so it remains in consumers’ interests to promote competition.

I thought those who originally bought BT shares effectively purchased these assets off the state. Anyone who then wants to use BT’s assets should pay a commercial rate to BT for the privilege in my view.

The infrastructure assets are now mostly with Openreach who do indeed charge for carrying traffic and use of the ducts etc. Previously BT/Openreach could refuse to carry other companies’ traffic.

The shareholders do own the assets, but they cannot take them away so any capacity ought to be used for additional services wherever possible. Many streets have one service provider’s underground ducts feeding fibre to properties and another company’s overhead structures doing the same thing with old copper wires and a load of knitting up a pole. It doesn’t make sense and the consumer is the loser.

The world of communications hasn’t stood still since BT was privatised in 1984 and there is now a multitude of service providers and the infrastructure needs to be adapted to cope without having to dig the roads up all over again. Ofcom is charged with making sure the market works in favour of consumers not corporate entities who just love squaring up to each other and growling.

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BT does a huge amount of lobbying. They host gatherings at all the major party conferences and have fringe events where they think they can bend the ears of ministers and MP’s. They are still one of the UK’s largest corporations and are very powerful behind the scenes.

I haven’t yet read one good reason why companies shouldn’t share the infrastructure in order to provide better and more comprehensive services, especially the higher speeds that many customers now want. Dog in the manger doesn’t cut it for me.

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As I have tried to explain, Duncan, that is because of BT’s overwhelmingly dominant position which acts against consumers’ interests and needs to be moderated.

In America they broke up the big telephone corporations and the oil & gas industry and there is a case for saying we should have done that here with BT.

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It is true that following the break up of the American telecom monopolies a few decades ago they have subsequently been allowed to regroup and consolidate. But I think it would have been better if BT had been split up at or soon after privatisation. We have different anti-monopoly policies here so a break-up would probably have lasted, but the other side of that coin is that the individual parts would have been at greater risk of take-over by media moguls trying to form international conglomerates.

I cannot understand why our government would want a non-British owned company to be the major operator in the UK but it can neither force BT to sell out to foreign interests nor stop it if it happens.

All very interesting, but not doing much to help those with a poor broadband service which Ofcom does not appear to recognise because the information it is getting from Openreach is at variance with what consumers are reporting.

mike collins says:
27 April 2017

BT, and Talk Talk are the WORST… some others are reasonable, plusnet have been pretty good so far, but since they are owned by BT, who knows. What gets me, is, they don’t give a damn, and we are deemed to be so stupid, we will put up with it. Still, since huge conglomerates are rampaging out of control, we are stuffed..