Wednesday, 14 February 2007

How to switch your DSL broadband ISP: easier procedures, with teeth for Ofcom

"It is very hard to vote with your feet when someone won't let go of your legs." - A Vint.

On Valentine's Day 2007, don't forget to send Ofcom a card. The sweethearts at my favourite communications regulator are smacking the naughty broadband industry's hands, and from today a new regulatory rule will make them let go of your legs so that you can change your broadband ISP more easily and smoothly - whether your existing provider likes it or not. Ofcom will finally get the teeth to nip at broadband providers' fingers and make them sort out the kinds of problems that affected customers of E7even and, more recently in November 2006, V21 (Biscit). And one of the major problems with getting your first ever broadband connection should be addressed, too.

How to switch broadband ISPs

If you, as a UK consumer using ADSL broadband for your internet access, want to switch your internet connection to another ADSL broadband provider, you should now be able to move to another internet service provider with minimal loss of your broadband service by asking your existing ISP for a MAC (a special code) and giving that code to the provider you want to move to.

The new rules apply to all providers (wholesale as well as retail) of broadband DSL over BT copper loops. However, they don't apply to cable broadband customers moving to other cable providers, or to migrations between cable and DSL.

They apply to migration requests from domestic and small business customers (i.e. customers with up to 10 employees, whether working in a paid or voluntary capacity), but not larger corporate customers.

Both losing and gaining providers will now have to follow a set procedure for the switch, within certain timelines, according to new Ofcom rules - and if they don't, Ofcom could take action e.g. fine them. From what I've read of the new rules, this seems to be the procedure now (but you need to seek advice for your own situation if you have issues with migration):

1. Request a MAC

The existing provider has to give you a special alphanumeric code called a MAC over the phone, or within 5 working days after you email or write to them requesting it. It will be valid for 30 days after issue and they're also supposed to give you the exact validity period and expiry date. They should remind you of your MAC whenever you ask for it, and if it expires they should give you a new one on request.

2. Give the MAC to the new ISP

You should of course give the MAC to the new ISP before it expires (or else you'll have to ask the old ISP for a new MAC).

The switchover is meant to take place within 5 working days after the new ISP asks the old ISP to transfer your existing broadband service across to them - and the new ISP ought to tell you the migration date too (which you should generally be able to get postponed if necessary).

3. No charging for MAC or threats of termination

One good new thing: Ofcom now specifically ban your old ISP from charging you just for providing a MAC (though if you're still within your contract period you may have to pay to terminate early). Nor can they refuse to give you a MAC even if you owe them money e.g. for unpaid subscriptions (a practice known as "debt blocking"). And their wholesale broadband provider in turn also can't refuse to give them the MAC to pass on to you.

They shouldn't be able to blackmail you into staying with them by saying that if you ask for a MAC they'll disconnect your broadband service, whether you've had the chance to give the MAC to another provider or not. (Although Ofcom's A1.13 rather puzzlingly suggests that if you say you do NOT wish to transfer your broadband service to another ISP, they can stop your service altogether?! How I hate double negatives! So I'd make it very clear to the existing ISP that I don't want them to cease the service when I ask for the MAC, myself.)

And wholesalers who have disputes with resellers or retail broadband providers will still have to give them the MAC to pass on to you.

4. Proper information on the migration process must be given

ISPs also have to give you proper information about how to switch providers and how the MAC process works, both on their website (which, cynically, I suspect will be hard to find on websites, because Ofcom don't require them to make that info easily accessible or prominent!) and also by sending you a copy of the info if you ask for it.

To ensure consumers receive accurate and consistent advice regarding whether and how best they can migrate, in November 2006 Ofcom together with OTA (Office of the Telecommunications Adjudicator) and broadband providers produced a matrix which shows how a switch can be made, based on which the new ISP is meant to advise consumers as to how best to migrate to them. Ofcom will be publishing complementary advice and help for consumers on their website, but meanwhile you can see the broadband migration customer advice matrix here. It brings together information on all possible broadband migration combinations (there are a lot, depending on the types of broadband services you're migrating from/to!), what processes apply, and what advice customers should be given if they contact their broadband service provider with a problem.

5. Complaints

Any complaints about the migration process will have to be dealt with as part of the ISP's complaints handling procedures - see Ofcom's consumer guide on problems with switching ISPs (and they have a phone helpline for consumers).

But - where's the ultimate deadline?

Now one thing that's not spelt out is how long the new ISP has got to migrate your broadband connection across. The consultation said: "The customer gives the MAC code to the GSP and tells the GSP when he wants the switch to happen (with a minimum of five working days’ lead time)." But there's nothing about that in the new rules.

Maybe I'm misreading the rules. However it seems to me the final new rules don't set out a particular deadline this, they don't even require the new ISP to do the migration within a "reasonable period" (unlike for home moves), so the new ISP could take their own sweet time getting your service migrated to them, even though the old ISP has a deadline of 5 working days after the move request from the new ISP. I guess this isn't thought to be an issue because the new ISP won't get your business and your money until they've changed you over to them, so they have an incentive to do that ASAP. Plus, I think the info which broadband ISPs now have to give users includes what their usual migration date following receipt of a MAC from a new customer who wants to move an existing broadband service over to them (GC 22 Annex A 1.19(f)).

Still, if the new broadband provider has inefficient staff who take ages to get their act together, I can see there might be problems. I wish Ofcom had spelt out that the new ISP has to get the move done within a reasonable period too, because if they don't do it before the MAC expires you'll have to ask the old ISP for another one all over again. But if the new broadband provider is that useless then maybe you'd reconsider whether you want to move to them anyway, assuming you're allowed to change your mind.

Tag on line, LLU migrations, home moves addressed via new "high level obligations"

Ofcom hopes the "tag on line" problem (see below) will be dealt with by the new rules too.

So should problems with migrations from broadband services supplied by ISPs via LLU (local loop unbundling) - provided to retail ISPs by BT's Openreach - where they use BT's copper telephone wires to supply their end user customers with:
  • data and voice services (MPF, Metallic Path Facility, or full local loop unbundling, where the ISP installs their own equipment in BT local exchanges), or
  • just broadband services (SMPF, standard metallic path facility or shared local loop unbundling, where a splitter is used).
Yes I know, as far as the consumer is concerned, it really shouldn't matter whether their ISP employs Openreach LLU, or IPStream or DataStream from BT Wholesale, but believe it or not there were problems getting a MAC if you had an SPMF service (though since December 2006 there's a new "provide with MAC" process which ISPs are meant to use for migrations away from SMPF.)

All this is via new "high level obligations" i.e. more general rules for situations where the MAC process isn't relevant, notably new broadband connections (e.g. on home moves), from MPF or SMPF, and between LLU providers. For brand new broadband connections, migrations to and from MPF (and I guess migrations to SMPF) and home moves, the new rules should also apply, so that the ISPs involved are supposed to:
  1. facilitate the migration (or where applicable, connection) of the Broadband Service in a manner that is fair and reasonable;
  2. ensure that the migration (or where applicable, connection) of the Broadband Service is carried out within a reasonable period.

Spread the word!

If you want to know more about what led up to all of this, and Ofcom's future plans on this front, read on. But first, do spread the word. It's important to increase consumer awareness of the new rules - it's no good having new consumer rights if consumers don't know about them.

Otherwise, unscrupulous ISPs can continue to lie to customers about what their rights are under the new rules, just as they lied about their rights under the voluntary code, relying on customer ignorance. I speak from experience - I've recently read the current voluntary code (summary, full code - also annexed to the Ofcom statement) and realised that when I inquired about a MAC a while back, my ISP, supposedly a respectable one, said something to me to put me off switching, which was directly against the code. I should have read it then, of course. And certainly recorded the call. (But that's generally illegal in the UK. Whenever companies can record your call "for training purposes", I feel it's only fair that customers should be able to do the same "for the record", otherwise it's too one-sided. But that's another rant...).

Also, don't forget that as a last resort you can always complain to Ofcom if you find your ISP isn't following the new rules and they don't respond to your direct complaints to them.

Background - the problems

The broadband migration situation in the UK had clearly gotten beyond a joke.

No market can be truly competitive if consumers can't easily switch to buying something else when they're not happy with a product or service's quality or value for money.

The MAC procedure

In the UK, to switch broadband providers with minimal interruption to your Internet connection you have to get a MAC (migration authorisation code) from your old ISP and give it to the new ISP. A voluntary broadband migration industry code of practice, to which most of the major broadband internet providers had signed up, was supposed to facilitate that process, and a set procedure was meant to be followed to ensure a seamless transfer with minimal disruption to the customer's broadband service. (More detailed step by step outline of how the MAC procedure works, see para 3.12 onwards.)

Without a MAC, in order to change ISPs you'd have to cancel your existing broadband service, wait several days before you can order from a new broadband provider, then wait further until the new supplier is able to provide a service (I think they call that "cease and reprovide"). So you have not only to pay for the re-connection via your new ISP but also lose access to your Net connection for several weeks. Few broadband users want to bear the extra cost or risk that long a disruption to their internet service, so if they can't get a MAC they'd probably end up gritting their teeth and living with their current unsatisfactory ISP.

Not following the voluntary code

In practice many ISPs, yes even those on the voluntary code list, haven't behaved very well when asked for a MAC, dragging their feet, putting obstacles in the way of consumers getting a MAC, misleading customers into thinking they have to pay for a MAC or will lose their service immediately they ask for one, etc. Sharp practice and dirty tricks, in other words. Or maybe just incompetence, in some cases. And of course, if you owed them any money (even if you'd stopped paying them because of shoddy or non-existent service at their end), some ISPs would refuse to give you a MAC altogether until you'd paid up.

But that's not entirely unexpected. Imagine effectively giving your existing supplier complete control of something you vitally need in order to switch to another service provider. If all they need to do to keep raking in your monthly subscription is to do nothing, they're not going to rush to do it unless they're forced to, are they? They can effectively hold you to ransom.

There were particular problems "where a broadband supplier fails to provide its customers with a working broadband service, but then does not respond to customers’ requests for MACs. A particularly acute example of the difficulties that consumers can face when they are unable to get MACs was the recent withdrawal of broadband provider E7even from the consumer market. Two of E7even’s wholesale suppliers, Tiscali and Netservices, were unwilling to release E7even’s customers once E7even had terminated their contracts." (para 1.14 of the consultation). Tiscali and Netservices effectively made E7even customers sign up to a 12-month contract with specific broadband providers (more expensive than others), as the alternative was to lose broadband service for several weeks. Ofcom just couldn't stop them from tying down E7even customers in this way. If your broadband ISP went bust, you were stuffed.

Also there were problems where an ISP's own wholesale provider refused to give it a MAC for its end user, e.g. because there were disputes between them.

Tag on line

"Tag on line" was also a big source of problems. "Here, a customer tries to order broadband, but is told by his chosen supplier that he cannot have service because there is a “tag” or “marker” on the line – which may mean that another supplier is already providing service on that line. The customer may have recently moved home, or may have recently ceased service with a different broadband provider – or may have done neither of these things" (consultation para 1.17).

Tag on line was a particular problem when moving home. If the person who previously lived in your new home had omitted to cancel their existing broadband service before they left then, believe it or not, you'd be stuck.

At the beginning of 2006, Ofcom was getting as many as 1,000-plus calls a week from customers who couldn't get broadband because of tag on line, and could find no one else to help them. (Although BT have since started a tag on line helpdesk, which has improved things on this front.)

Ofcom consultation and outcome

So, after many consumer complaints and an official consultation about the issues, Ofcom decided to force broadband ISPs to let go of our legs, and the new rule will give Ofcom teeth to bite their hands if they don't - if you'll forgive the mixed metaphor. (See Ofcom's official consultation on broadband migration: summary, full statement, news release 13 December 2006.)

The solution? New broadband rules from 14 February 2007

From 14 February 2007 there's a new General Condition 22 from Ofcom (now incorporated into their full General Conditions - link updated 2 May 2007). GC22 is based on the old voluntary code, with some tweaks. (Ofcom have provided a comparative table of the differences between the old code and the new MAC procedures, in Annex 3 of their broadband migrations statement).

So, from now on:
  • communications providers must comply with the new compulsory MAC process where relevant
  • where MAC's not relevant, e.g. tag on line or home moves, communications providers have to follow certain "high level obligations" aimed at filling in the gaps and making ISPs act fairly and reasonably towards end users anyway
  • Ofcom can investigate potential breaches and even fine ISPs for not following the procedure properly, hitting them in the pocket where it hurts (unlike say with the E7even debacle).

The future?

Ofcom know GC 22 is just a start.

Consumers still need a way to get MACs from elsewhere if their existing broadband provider can't or won't provide them. In the first half of 2007 Ofcom will be working with the industry - BT, Openreach, LLU operators and broadband providers - to try to come up with something workable on that front, but then they may consult on more formal regulation (e.g. making such a process mandatory) if despite this "co-regulatory approach" they still think it's needed to protect consumers.

Ofcom will also consider whether migrations to and from cable broadband should be covered too, and maybe other fixed broadband technologies like wireless.

All in all, a good outcome for us consumers. We can now start shopping around for better broadband deals and asking for those MACs! I certainly intend to.


Mark Tomin said...

The process still seems more difficult that it has to be. One thing that could help is the ISP you are trying to switch provide some guidence.

Nationwide DSL

Improbulus said...

Any ISP worth their salt ought to help you to switch to them.

But I don't suppose you're unconnected with Nationwide DSL, are you, Mark...?