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Consumer Panel recommends try before buy mobiles

Possible lifeline for not-spot dwellers

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Punters should be able to sign a mobile contract then revoke it if the coverage isn't up to scratch, according to recommendations from The Communications Consumer Panel.

The recommendation comes out of research that found 56 per cent of UK-mobile-phone users have experienced a lack of coverage, with a third having regular problems getting voice calls, let alone mobile broadband. However, the same research discovered that one per cent of mobile users "regularly" make video calls, so best not to take it too seriously.

The researchers asked 2000 people and 300 businesses about their mobile phone experiences and found that most of them had complaints of some sort (detailed pdfs available for consumers and businesses). The Panel reckons Ofcom has been so busy talking about mobile broadband that the regulator is neglecting basic voice services, which are actually more important to ordinary people.

Users complained to the Panel about dropped calls and simply finding themselves in spaces without any mobile coverage - 36 per cent of mobile users reckon they've been in a not-spot, with 18 per cent regularly wandering into radio voids.

Even allowing for the British predisposition towards complaining, those are damning figures - though the same questionnaire (pdf) discovered that five per cent of users make video calls on their phones, one per cent of them regularly. This hardly tallies with our experience, as we are yet to see anyone making a video call outside a technical demonstration.

The Communications Consumer Panel is appointed by Ofcom, but makes recommendations based on independent research from the customers' point of view. It is recommending that those buying a mobile phone should be allowed to take it home for a few days, after which they can return it for a full refund if the coverage isn't good enough.

The Panel also reckons that the legal issues around mobile telephony need clearing up. They point out that a ringtone paid for through a premium text is monitored by PhonepayPlus, while the same transaction completed by Credit Card falls outside their remit, which is unnecessarily confusing.

Ofcom did get praise for changing its coverage calculations: since August this year an operator has to provide signal in 90 per of a postcode to consider it covered, as opposed to the 75 per cent that was previously required. That drops England's 2G coverage to 99 per cent, Wales to 92 per cent, and leaves Scotland with only 89 per cent of postcodes covered, though even that leaves up to ten per cent of every postcode without coverage.

Which is what prompts the recommendation that customers should be able to return handsets. But while the recommendation might seem eminently sensible, it is unlikely that Ofcom has the appetite for a significant contest of wills with the operators right now. ®

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