Standing up for your rights

18 March 2019

On World Consumer Rights Day 2019, which this year focuses on ‘trusted smart products’, Ofcom Chief Executive Sharon White shares her views on fairness for telecoms customers.

On 15 March 1962, John F. Kennedy became the first world leader to outline a framework for consumer rights. Some years later, that day evolved into World Consumer Rights Day.

For the last three years, this day has focused on digital products and services: from online shopping to smart devices. I think that shows just how important online services have become to people’s personal and working lives.

Across the UK, eight in 10 of us now own a smartphone, while smart TVs, watches and speakers are among the fastest growing tech products out there.

Thanks to the rise of these devices, we’ve never been more reliant on a decent mobile or broadband connection. For many, these connections are a lifeline; the only means of reaching relatives or accessing care and support.

People can choose from an array of different providers for your connection. Companies are fighting for business by offering lower prices, wider coverage and better reliability.

But this choice also throws up challenges. For some people, more options can be confusing. So what protections are needed to allow businesses to compete and come up with new ideas, while making sure they don’t make things worse for customers in the process?

Ofcom’s job is to stand up for customers’ rights and make sure companies treat them fairly.

Fairness for customers

Ensuring fairness for customers is a priority for us – particularly fairness for those who may find themselves in vulnerable circumstances, whether through their income, age or a disability.

For example, under our rules, people with hearing or speech impairments must have access to a relay service that enables them to have conversations over the phone.

Last year, we also strengthened our consumer protections so all telecoms firms must have policies for identifying and supporting customers who may be vulnerable.

Sometimes we come down hard on companies to bring them in line, as we did recently by handing out big fines and forcing them to return millions of pounds to customers who had been overcharged for leaving their contract early.

But we’ve also worked with industry to secure significant benefits for customers, including money back when things go wrong, without having to claim it; and a reduction in bills for BT landline-only customers.

While our research shows most people are satisfied with their broadband or phone, we understand there are some things that can be really frustrating.

Slow broadband can be one. Our research found that around half of homes able to get superfast broadband are still yet to take it up. This is because either they don’t know it’s available or they might think it will be more expensive.

Our Boost Your Broadband campaign gives simple advice on how you could get faster broadband, for the same or less than you pay now. And under new protections this month, broadband shoppers are now told what speeds they will get before they commit to a contract. That’s on top of existing rules that ensure firms make all the important terms and conditions clear to you when you’re signing up.

But there are still too many people who can’t get decent broadband. We want everyone, whether they’re in a city or a hamlet, to get a decent connection. So we’re working to implement the Government’s universal broadband service, which will give everyone the legal right to request a decent connection.

Seeing your bill creep up after a promotional offer ends is another frustration. That’s why we recently published plans to make companies tell you when your contract is coming to an end and what their best offers are. You can then decide whether you want to stick to the deal you’re on, or make a change.

We’re also taking action to support mobile customers. It can’t be right that people are left in the dark about how much they are paying for a mobile handset, minutes or data – so we’re looking at options to make sure they get clearer, fairer pricing.

People’s needs are constantly changing

Our work to ensure fairness for customers won’t end. Technology, business practices and customers’ expectations are constantly evolving. So too must the way we work and the rules we have in place to protect consumers.

We will keep our ear to the ground, not just on what companies are doing, but whether what they are doing is fair for customers. That is the ultimate test, and if we see companies falling short, we won’t hesitate to step in and stand up for you.

You can find lots of helpful advice and guidance on your rights from the Ofcom website.