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'Passport' system to make switching telco easier

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Ofcom is thinking of introducing a simple "passport" system that would make switching telcos and ISPs easier.

Publishing its long-awaited consultation into switching and mis-selling, the communications watchdog wants to ensure the process involved in moving between different firms does not dissuade consumers from opting for new providers.

At the same time, Ofcom doesn't want a free-for-all that would expose punters to mis-selling.

The reason appears simple enough. Ofcom spent most of last year trying to improve competition in the telecoms sector. And with the advent of broadband-based services such as video on demand and VoIP, consumers are faced with more operators providing more services.

But this increased choice is wasted if switching providers is cumbersome and time-consuming. That's why Ofcom wants to ensure there are "no obstacles in the way of customers who choose to move between companies and/or products".

"The process for switching behind the scenes should be swift and efficient, and enable customers to move from one company and/or product to another with no interruptions or problems," it said in a consultation document published today.

At the same time, consumers need to be protected from "dishonest sales and marketing behaviour" that might see punters switched to rival operators and services without their consent (known as slamming).

According to Ofcom, the processes currently in place are inefficient and complicated and the regulator predicts that unless something is done, this situation is likely to get worse.

Although Ofcom has kicked off the consultation, it appears to be keen on a "single, uniform process" for switching, similar to one used by other utility operators. If adopted, customers would hold the key to the process.

In essence, punters could only be switched once they hand a code to the company to which they're moving to, similar to the current MAC process, which enables broadband punters to switch ISPs.

However, the MAC system is flawed. Because punters have to obtain their MAC code from the company, they're leaving it to them to hand it to the company they're joining. Consumers have long complained that some ISPs have been reluctant to hand over these MAC codes, effectively stopping any transfer dead in its tracks.

Instead, Ofcom is proposing that customers should have easy access to their "code" (it might have to be printed on all letters and bills, for example) without having to ask their existing provider for it. That way they wouldn't need to contact the company they're leaving to switch providers.

While such moves are encouraging, it's clear that adopting a workable system will be no piece of cake. Ofcom points out that switching customers is devilishly complicated.

Its own research has found that BT has some 160 possible switching processes in place, which highlights the difficulty of coming up with a single, industry wide solution to the problem.

The closing date for responses to the consultation is April 28.®

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