As part of its Strategic Review of Digital Communications, Ofcom recently opened a consultation on changes it is proposing to make to the General Conditions of Entitlement (GCs), the main regulatory regime for companies that provide communications networks and services in the UK. The consultation period will close in March 2017, with the intention thereafter to be in force by late 2017 or early 2018.
Having already held a consultation on proposals for updating the more technical GCs, this phase of the consultation focusses specifically on those GCs that relate to consumer protection issues.
Summing up its objectives, Ofcom states, “The aim of this review is to ensure that the General Conditions remain fit for purpose in today’s market and are aligned to our current policy priorities. We are seeking to make the rules clearer and more practical, remove any redundant rules, and make compliance simpler. This should also make it easier for us to enforce the rules in the interests of citizens and consumers.”
Although the document is extremely in depth, there are four key areas of the consultation that we believe communication providers (CPs) should take particular note of.
1. Network Functioning
Ofcom are proposing changes to GCs one to five which cover access and interconnection obligations, standardisation and specified interfaces, proper and effective functioning of the network, emergency call numbers and emergency planning.
Ofcom doesn’t propose any substantive change to interconnection obligations, however, it does propose that where a regulated provider acquires information from another CP, that they shall use that information solely for the purpose for which it was supplied, that they shall continue to respect the confidentiality of the information given and that it must not be passed on to any other party.
Concerning emergency calls, Ofcom proposes a new requirement from 1 October 2017 for regulated providers of mobile services to provide access by all end users to emergency organisations using eCall services.
2. Numbering and technical conditions
Ofcom is proposing to reinforce its powers to withdraw numbers from CPs for the purposes of numbering reorganisation, non-use of adopted numbers within six months of their allocation, or if the person/organisation holding the numbers is in breach of numbering conditions. The overall aim is to secure the best and most efficient use of numbers.
Ofcom currently has powers, which it intends to retain, to levy an annual number charge to CPs for numbers in specified geographic areas. These areas are listed as an annex to the relevant general condition. While they understand the technical need to allocate numbers in large blocks results in a proportion of allocated numbers that are not assigned to subscribers, their latest audit has revealed a number of CPs are holding full blocks of unassigned numbers that could be returned to Ofcom for efficient re-allocation.
In addition to retaining unused numbers, Ofcom wants to address unassigned numbers being used for the sole purpose of earning revenue. For example, as a result of misdialling an advertised numbers where the public call for a particular service which is not provided, yet the call is charged.
Ofcom, propose that an allocation of numbers may be withdrawn where the CP cannot demonstrate that the numbers are currently assigned to a subscriber within 12 months. Once again, the withdrawal must be made for the purpose of securing what Ofcom believes to be the best and most efficient use of numbers.
There will be leeway as Ofcom appreciate that number allocation and usage is not an exact science and they will take into account circumstances where the 12 month timescale should be relaxed.
The General Conditions also currently require providers to provide Calling Line Identification (CLI) facilities, but only where technically feasible and economically viable to do so. Ofcom now consider the cost of providing basic CLI facilities to be low, and as many CPs already provide the basic feature without charge, any CP which currently does not provide these services for free must now do so.
CPs must also take all reasonable steps to identify and prevent from being connected, calls from invalid or non-diallable numbers.
3. Billing Requirements
The current policy objective is to ensure that end users of communications services are not overcharged, receive the services they are charged for, can adequately control usage and cost, and that they are protected from immediate or unfair disconnection for non-payment.
In general these conditions will be upheld, although they will be rewritten to make them simpler. Due to the increased uptake of data services, Ofcom also proposes to extend the scope of certain rules so that bills will feature an accurate breakdown of data usage in addition to current itemised billing requirements. Currently the mandatory requirement to obtain approval of the Total Metering and Billing Systems applies only to voice calls. Application to data usage is only on a voluntary basis at the moment.
In addition, Ofcom has increased the threshold for mandatory approval of a CP’s metering and billing system from £40 million to £55 million.
These changes would ensure that consumers are charged correctly for the services provided to them and that the bills they receive accurately record those charges.
Part of this process will involve a minimum 12 month period being implemented for CPs to retain billing records, this would make any future monitoring programme and enforcement action more effective than with the current absence of a minimum time period.
Consequently, Ofcom propose to remove the 15 month maximum limit on record retention, with the view that the new minimum requirement will provide the industry with more certainty and therefore make the maximum limit unnecessary.
4. Consumer Protection
Even after previous strengthening of the regulations regarding complaints handling, Ofcom is still dissatisfied with the performance of communication providers when resolving complaints.
With this in mind, and to engender confidence in customers when they have a complaint, the regulator intends to strengthen complaints handling rules to ensure complaints are dealt with quickly and effectively, that consumers are kept informed of progress, and have faster access to a CP’s complaints handling procedures. In particular, Ofcom propose to:
- Ensure that CP’s complaints handling procedures are accessible to all consumers, including those that are vulnerable or have a disability either online or by telephone.
- Improve the transparency of the procedures for handling and closing complaints for customers by requiring CPs to provide certain information to the customer at particular points in the complaints procedure.
- Prevent CPs from unilaterally deciding to close complaints without informing the customer.
- Improve both levels of compliance by CPs and effective Ofcom enforcement in the event of non-compliance, by requiring CPs to self-monitor compliance and take steps to address incidents of non-compliance, while also retaining more comprehensive records of complaints and storing them for at least 12 months instead of the current six months.
- CPs should also be members of an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) scheme where unresolved complaints can be referred. Complaints should ordinarily be resolved within eight weeks after which they can be referred to ADR.
If you are interested to review the consultation document in its entirety visit https://www.ofcom.org.uk/consultations-and-statements/category-1/review-general-conditions-relating-to-consumer-protection