New Ofcom CEO shows teeth, tells industry to improve

UK regulator Ofcom's new CEO firmly rapped the telecoms industry on its knuckles, saying operators must provide better services to their customers in future.

Sharon White, Ofcom's new CEO

Ofcom CEO Sharon White

In her first speech since taking up the role in late March, Sharon White this week told a conference organised by consumer organisation Which? that although customer service levels in the industry have improved, "people still find it too difficult to change provider and cancel contracts, and are frustrated with customer service".

White challenged the industry to improve in four key areas, with a focus on enabling users to switch more easily to a new provider, and improving contract terms.

However, the regulator clearly believes that the industry cannot be left to its own devices here: Ofcom also announced a series of measures to enforce such improvements in order to better protect consumers in the UK.

"Where markets don't work well enough--or where competition alone isn't enough to secure good outcomes for consumers--then we have powers to intervene," said White, who also stressed that Ofcom generally favours a light-touch approach to regulation.

A first step will be to enable fixed broadband and landline customers to walk away from their contracts at any time when speeds fall below acceptable levels. In addition, a new "one touch" process will place the responsibility for the switch in the hands of the company to which the customer is moving in order to improve the process of switching providers.

Ofcom has also secured greater commitments from the country's largest providers on broadband speeds: BT, EE, KC in Hull, Plusnet, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media have all signed up to a strengthened code of practice in this area.

Next month, the regulator will outline plans to make it easier for mobile phone customers to change provider.

"We have set the bar high for ourselves but also for industry. If we deliver then everyone benefits: consumers and citizens of the country and the businesses who deliver the services we regulate," White concluded.

Meanwhile Sir Charles Dunstone, the chairman of TalkTalk and retailer Dixons Carphone, called on Ofcom to "fight" to maintain competition in the UK amid a wave of mergers in the mobile and broadband markets.

Dunstone said during the same Which? conference that he fears competitiveness could be lost "with the round of proposed consolidation," the Financial Times reported.

BT has agreed to buy EE, Three UK is due to merge with O2 UK and Vodafone and Liberty Global are discussing asset swaps, which some believe could lead to a merger of Virgin Media with Vodafone UK.

The FT noted that White came out strongly in favour of competition in the sector, saying it was always "better to preserve and promote competition among providers than deter it."

Ofcom is not responsible for vetting mergers, however: the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is reviewing the BT/EE deal while the European Commission is expected to assess the proposed Three/O2 merger.

For more:
- see this Ofcom release
- see this Financial Times article (sub. req.)

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