Ofcom stamps down on phone and internet complaintsMillions struggle to resolve telecoms problems

22 July 2010

Person talking on the phone

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Phone and broadband watchdog Ofcom today confirmed plans to make it easier for people to take unresolved complaints to a free, independent resolution service. 

Last year, around three million people failed to settle problems with their phone and broadband provider within 12 weeks of their initial complaint. 

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Dispute resolution effective, but awareness low

Research by Ofcom shows that you're more likely to resolve a problem with your phone or broadband provider if you take it to dispute resolution. It says that of those complaints about mobile providers that were not resolved within 12 weeks, 91% of disputes were subsequently settled when taken to a dispute resolution service. Only half of such complaints were resolved when the customer did not go to a dispute resolution service.

If you have a complaint with your home phone, mobile or broadband provider that is not resolved to your satisfaction within eight weeks of your initial complaint, you have the right to escalate your complaint to one of two telecoms dispute resolution services - Otelo or Cisas. You can find out which one your provider is a member of on the Otelo and Cisas websites.

However, Ofcom found that more than three-quarters of phone and broadband customers it asked who had problems resolving their complaints were unaware of this right. 

Providers who don't treat complainants fairly risk enforcement

Part of the reason for low awareness of complaints rights is likely to be down to phone or broadband companies not making clear information about them widely available to customers. 

Ofcom plans to put in place new rules to address this issue. From 22 July 2011, phone and broadband suppliers must:

  • Include information about their dispute resolution service on all paper bills. 
  • Write to customers whose complaints haven't been addressed within eight weeks to tell them about their right to escalate their complaint. 

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Fairness and transparency are key

Ofcom is also putting in place a code of practice from 22 January 2011, which includes minimum standards for complaints handling, including timeliness, fairness, transparency and accessibility. It hopes this will provide consistency in standards and give Ofcom powers to take action against providers who do not abide by the code. 

Which? phone and broadband expert Ceri Stanaway says: 'Which? receives a steady stream of complaints from members about phone and broadband providers, and most of them have never heard of Otelo or Cisas. 

'In many cases complainants say they are repeatedly ignored or fobbed off by their providers, suggesting it's high time more was done to make phone and broadband customers aware of their rights to escalate their complaints.'

Providers should fix problems themselves

'You'd hope that phone and broadband providers wouldn't require the threat of enforcement to resolve their customers' problems fairly', Ceri adds. 'Perhaps the requirement to actively promote dispute resolution or risk enforcement action will prompt providers to tackle consumer complaints at an earlier stage.

'Ofcom's new rules are certainly a step in the right direction, though the fact there are two dispute resolution services still has potential to cause consumer confusion. It also risks the two services competing for provider membership by being the most lenient. Which?'s preferred model would be to have one, clearly named "Telecoms Ombudsman"'. 

If you have a complaint about your phone and broadband provider, keep records of all written and verbal communication as this will help if you need to take your problem to dispute resolution. Otelo and Cisas decisions are legally binding on the provider and consumers can be awarded up to £5,000 for financial loss and inconvenience caused. 

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