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Ofcom proposes ban on selling ‘locked’ devices

Ofcom has proposed new rules which would stop UK telcos from strong-arming customers into renewed or extended contracts.

The new rules would prevent telcos from locking-down devices to a single network. This has been a popular way for telcos to bully customers into remaining customers, and while it has become less commonplace in recent years, EE, Vodafone and Tesco Mobile persist with the ugly strategy.

“Switching mobile provider can be really frustrating,” said Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom’s Consumer Group Director. “By freeing mobile users from locked handsets, our plans would save people time, effort and money – and help them unlock a better deal.”

Quoting its own research, Ofcom suggests more than 50% of people in the UK find it uncomfortably difficult to switch handset providers, will a third have given-up on a switch because it was so much hassle to get the device unlocked.

Although these numbers do seem high, it perhaps should not come as a surprise. All the UK telcos have elected for difficult divorce proceedings as opposed to enhanced customer service to reduce churn. The attitude was never to make themselves more appealing, but to make the process of leaving so distasteful, frustrating and complicated that few would try it. Customer service is better in comparison nowadays, but it is still far from acceptable when set alongside other verticals.

While O2, Sky, Three and Virgin have all decided to drop the ‘locked’ device approach, it seems EE, Vodafone and Tesco Mobile are still drawn to the Mafiosi style of telecoms.

“We welcome Ofcom’s preferred proposal to ensure that all operators sell unlocked handsets, ending a practice that three quarters of consumers find unfair,” Three said in a statement. “However, there is no technical reason for a 12-month implementation period and urge them to bring their timetable forward, so that consumers can benefit from simpler switching in 2020.”

These proposals are now out for public consultation, though there are other efforts being made by the regulator to level the playing field for customers.

In another proposal, Ofcom is hoping to simplify the process of switching home broadband providers also. As it stands, it is simple enough to switch between internet service providers who make use of Openreach’s infrastructure, but the difficulties arise when moving to an ISP on different infrastructure, such as CityFibre or HyperOptic. Once again, BT appears to be employing strong-arm tactics in the pursuit of profit.

As a result of another distasteful, frustrating and complicated process, 43% decided against switching because they are worried about arranging two different services to start and end at the right time, 37% were put off by having to speak to two different companies and 35% were concerned about overlapping bills. If any of these worries become reality, there is no consequence for the telco irrelevant as to where the blame lies.

Under the new rules, service providers would have to compensate customers if things go wrong and they are left without a service for more than one working day. There will of course be small print to prevent abuse of the system, though at least there are some foundations for holding service providers accountable.

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