Helping consumers make the most of the broadband revolution

07 November 2015

07 November 2015

This article by Sharon White, Ofcom Chief Executive, first appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 7 November 2015.

Since I joined Ofcom in March, I’ve heard first-hand people’s experiences of their broadband and mobile services.

Thousands of people, right across the UK, call Ofcom’s consumer contact centre every year for help and advice on improving their service or getting the best deal. Whether it’s an intermittent mobile signal or slow broadband, we advise people on their rights and steps they can take to improve things.

From listening to some of these calls, there is no doubt that mobile and broadband are no longer ‘nice to haves’. They are now essential to the way we work and live – connecting friends, family and businesses across the UK and beyond. We rely on good communications just as we do gas, electricity and water.

Choice and competition have gone a long way to deliver the telecoms services we expect. We can pick from a range of different companies; offering more inclusive data and minutes, more value for money and faster speeds.

But competition can only be fully effective if people are confident about the choices they make among a huge array of different services on offer. People must also know what to expect from a provider once they sign up and get the service they pay for.

Independent, trustworthy information is essential for people to choose a service that’s right for them and hold their provider to account when it doesn’t meet the required standard.

To help them, we launched our mobile coverage checker in August – a one-stop tool that allows anyone to check the mobile coverage in their local area, right down to their postcode. People can feed back on whether their experience matches what our database tells them – and more than 4,000 people have done this so far.

The portal has had 330,000 visits in less than three months.

We publish data on customer complaints, which encourages operators that are doing less well to improve their service. We also compare the average broadband performance of telecoms and mobile providers.

Better information is about empowering consumers, and there’s more we can do.

Our plan is to map the actual broadband connection speeds for every address in the UK next year, telling people what service they can expect to get from different providers. That will allow residents, businesses and house movers to shop around with confidence.

Of course, good communication is about reliability as well as speed. In the coming weeks, we’ll be launching a mobile ‘app’ for smartphones and tablets, which will test your Wi-Fi connection.

We estimate that consumers’ home broadband experience may not be working as well as it could in around a fifth of UK homes.

This is often caused by something unrelated to the internet connection, which could be as simple as interference to the broadband router from a lamp, stereo speakers or baby monitor. The new app will help identify if your broadband isn’t performing as it should be, and suggest simple trouble-shooting tips to help you address it. 

Our Connected Nations report will also provide information on actual broadband speeds down to postcode level so people can find out what speeds are being delivered down their street.

Consumer tools and information can help communications work for everyone. But we also need the other important ingredients – choice, quality of service, competitive prices and wider availability – to be working for consumers too.

On most of these measures, the UK does well. But we have identified some areas of concern – such as rising prices for some landline and broadband customers, which might not be justified by higher costs or improved service.

This might be a temporary blip in the market, and there are still excellent offers out there for people who shop around.

But we worry about people who don’t want the hassle of leaving their current provider, or lack the confidence to shop around. We want to make it easier for customers to switch providers and are keeping a close eye on these developments.

Ofcom is also in the middle of a once-in-a-decade review of the digital communications industries, which is taking a broader look at how our future regulation can best serve consumers.

We’ve seen a revolution in mobile and broadband services over recent years, with 4G mobile and superfast continuing to extend across the country. While that work continues, we want to ensure consumers have the tools they need to find the best deal – whether they’re in towns, cities or the countryside.

That information will drive competition, which in turn can deliver quality, coverage, choice and value to telecoms customers for years to come.

Readers can access Ofcom’s coverage maps here: