Ofcom flexes its enlarged muscles on 3G switch-off and online safety

UK comms regulator Ofcom is leaning into its expanded remit by opining on the switch-off of 3G services and social media transparency.

“While Ofcom does not have a formal role in the switch-off process, we want to make sure consumers are treated fairly and can continue to access the services they need,” declares a recent Ofcom press release. So what role do you have, Ofcom, an informal one? And if so are we free to ignore your wishes expressed in that capacity?

This seems like clear mission-creep, suggesting the indirect projection of power in a ‘nice network you’ve got there, it would be a shame if anything happened to it’ kind of way. Accordingly Ofcom has set out four ‘expectations’, with the clear inference that it will be disappointed if they are not met. How that disappointment will manifest itself is once more left menacingly unspecified, even in the 20-page accompanying document. Here are those expectations in full.

  • Minimising coverage impact: EE, Three and Vodafone have committed to offering an equivalent level of coverage after the 3G and subsequent 2G switch-off, with areas currently reliant on these networks being upgraded to 4G ahead of switch-off. We expect Virgin Media O2 (which has yet to set a date for its 3G switch-off) to make a similar pledge. Customers should not experience a reduction in coverage as a result.
  • Contractual information: where possible, mobile providers should explain in their contract information and summary when the service being purchased will no longer work because of the switch-off and that the customer will need a 4G-capable handset after that date.
  • Customer communication and support: where customers need to replace or update their handset, we expect mobile operators to provide a minimum of three to six months’ notice of the steps they need to take, and to communicate clearly using a range of methods to raise awareness. Vulnerable customers will need to be given additional support – this might include offering discounts on replacement handsets.
  • Other services that rely on mobile networks: the switch-off will also impact a range of other devices such as telecare alarms and payment terminals. These services will need a longer notice period. We expect mobile providers to make every effort to identify these services, helping to raise awareness so that relevant suppliers have sufficient time to update their devices and consumers do not lose access to vital services.

“In the next few years, older mobile networks will gradually be switched-off to make way for faster, more reliable services,” explained Selina Chadha, Ofcom’s Director of Connectivity. “But some people will need help upgrading their devices during this process. So we’ve told mobile networks what they should do to make sure support is available to those who need it.”

Or else. The full document does mention regulatory obligations and commitments associated with the switch-off, which cover the following.

  • Transparency of contract terms and giving customers a right to exit their contract without penalty if their contracts are modified (General Condition C1 and relevant consumer law)
  • The treatment of vulnerable customers (General Condition C5)
  • Access to emergency services (General Condition A3)

Surely Ofcom should restrict itself to the enforcement of those obligations and not burden operators with a much broader wish list that has no stated penalties associated with it. The feeling we take from this is that Ofcom has become emboldened by all the new powers the government keeps throwing at it and is now inclined to flex its muscles in increasingly brazen ways.

Further evidence of this was a piece published on the Ofcom press site earlier this week titled ‘Looking ahead to online regulation: It’s time to rethink transparency reporting’. In the first paragraph it states “The UK’s Online Safety Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament, will give Ofcom new regulatory tools, including mandatory transparency reporting.” Note the presumption that the bill will pass unchanged.

So what is this transparency reporting all about then? Ofcom doesn’t seem to have fully made up its mind yet, but the piece gives some pretty strong hints. “We’re thinking carefully about what information we want platforms to publish in their transparency reports,” it says. “We may require them to publish metrics around the prevalence and dissemination of illegal or harmful content, and the number of users who have encountered this content.”

There’s that totally vague and subjective term ‘harmful’ again. One of the main reasons the Online Safety Bill has taken so long to pass is strong opposition to proposed banning of ‘legal but harmful’ content. We were assured late last year that it would be taken out but Ofcom apparently didn’t get the memo. Or perhaps it did, but was assured by the government that the concession was merely a semantical one and that it would still be free to police the internet however it wants.

“A carefully designed transparency regime could transform Ofcom’s ability to hold platforms accountable,” concludes the piece and it seems safe to interpret ‘transform’ as ‘massively increase’. Ofcom has traditionally done a fairly good job within more narrow regulatory remits but by chucking all these extra powers at it, the UK government risks letting a monstrous genie out of the bottle.


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  1. Avatar Mike Ferris 10/02/2023 @ 7:26 pm

    ooh, you’ve got it in for the Ofcom folks, Scott. Sorry for commenting late, only just picked this up after finishing listening to last week’s pod. Couldn’t a more generous interpretation be that Ofcom is merely pointing to the things it does have a direct role in that might be affected by a bungled or non-customer centric approach to 3G switch off, over which it doesn’t have a specific role?

    • Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 13/02/2023 @ 9:30 am

      Sure but I’m worried about bureaucratic mission-creep encouraged by politicians, innit.

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