Ofcom's ISP code of practice: why it is necessary
My struggle with Plusnet
First Person For two years PlusNet resisted the broadband industry's voluntary code of practice designed to protect consumers from unscrupulous service providers.
Now, with Ofcom regulations forcing hold-out ISPs to fall in line with the rest of the industry, PlusNet claims to have followed the voluntary code all along.
Central to the issue is the Migration Authorisation Code (MAC) that an ISP must issue before a customer can move to a new service provider.
A side-effect of this migration process is that, in the case of an alleged debt, an ISP can boot a customer offline and withhold their MAC until they hand over the money.
The industry's code of practice, which most major ISPs had committed to since August 2004, should have put a stop to that practice. It stated: "The existing service provider cannot withhold an authorisation code to enforce debt collection or contractual rights."
But with some ISPs resisting the code, a recent amendment to Ofcom's General Conditions of Entitlement aimed to "enable consumer choice" by enforcing a consistent policy throughout the industry.
Condition 22: Service Migrations does not expressly forbid ISPs from withholding MACs to recover alleged debts, but debt is not listed as a valid reason for withholding the MAC. Ofcom's announcement of the regulations clarified what this means for consumers:
"Broadband service providers who are losing a customer will be required to provide MACs on request in most cases. They will not be able to withhold MACs where the customer owes them money ('debt blocking') or charge for MACs."
Earlier this month I experienced first hand why that rule is necessary.
After years as a fully paid-up premium PlusNet customer, I wanted to leave. Months of fruitless complaints, line checks and diagnostic tests had failed to resolve ongoing connection problems and had sapped my confidence in the company.
So I wasn't expecting much help when I presented PlusNet with evidence that the problems were caused by so-called "traffic shaping" - the company's deliberate blocking of some internet traffic to theoretically improve the quality of other services.
But to its credit, PlusNet did admit that network-wide traffic shaping was to blame. This, I was told, meant there was nothing they could do to address my specific problems.
I found it infuriating that the company's technical support team had failed to tell me about this issue. Frankly, I felt that I had been tricked into staying with PlusNet under the false belief that the connection problems were being addressed and would be resolved. I immediately asked to terminate my account.
PlusNet's written response was indignant:
"[There is a] 30 day notice period to pay for, the cost of this is detailed below. We are not in breach of contact (sic) with regards to traffic prioritisation. If you do not authorise the payment the MAC key will not be generated."
I didn't think I should have to pay to take my business away from a company that I felt had let me down. So I confronted PlusNet with both the voluntary code of practice and the Ofcom regulations.
PlusNet's position remained steadfast: Regardless of what the rest of the industry was doing, and regardless of the Ofcom regulations, I would have to pay a cancellation fee or the MAC for my account would be withheld.
Consumer complaints are Now Public
According to figures from Ofcom and the independent consumer service uSwitch.com, around 40,000 people every month experience difficulties when migrating to a new ISP.
With so many people standing to benefit from the new Ofcom regulations, I wrote about my experience for the citizen journalism site NowPublic.com.
Within two hours of that article going live, Liam Martin of the PlusNet "Comms Team" wrote a response, defending the company's withholding of MACs: "Our position with regards to MAC keys has always, in the past, been that customers are obliged to pay all their contractual fees and notice period subscription before we would issue a MAC. This is nothing more than an administration decision - and I think that is fair enough to be honest. We're not really a 'large' ISP."
The statement went on:
"Of course, we will comply with Ofcom's new procedure and legislation - but this doesn't detract from the fact that some customers will still have contractual obligations - be it in the form of deferred setup fees or the notice period. All that will now happen is that ISPs will make more use of debt collection agencies to claim monies owed."
No doubt there would be strong feelings among consumer groups if ISPs were to threaten disgruntled customers with debt collectors and damage to their credit ratings.
But at least the issue at hand, that of PlusNet withholding MACs, appeared to have been resolved. My code arrived by email a few minutes later, no questions asked, and with no more crazy talk about cancellation fees!
'We met all the conditions'
Speaking to The Register, PlusNet has now explained why they resisted signing-up to the voluntary code of practice for over two and a half years.
"We met all the conditions of the voluntary code but didn't sign as when customers owe us money for real costs we had incurred on customers behalf (activation, modem etc) our policy was to settle those costs before issuing a MAC," PlusNet products and marketing director Neil Armstrong said.
We also quizzed PlusNet on the timing of their decision to issue a MAC for my account so soon after the publication of the NowPublic.com article. Did that publicity have any influence on the decision?
"Your story didn't affect the decision," Armstrong said. "Your posting on the eve of the Ofcom ruling prompted Liam to get in touch with you and I'm glad we've been able to resolve your MAC code issue."
PlusNet insists that the 30-day cancellation charge will still apply for customers leaving in future, but the company again pledged to abide by Ofcom's rules.
For anyone suffering at the whim of a rogue service provider, Ofcom may very well offer the last hope of resolution. So it can be frustrating to consumers that the regulator will not investigate individual complaints.
Ofcom's usual practice is to merely gather complaints and do nothing. An investigation can only begin once a particular company causes a blip in the statistics.
Coinciding with the launch of the new migration rules, Ofcom announced an "own-initiative" investigation into the broadband industry.
"Ofcom's active enforcement programme will gather information from broadband providers about migrations and consider evidence of non-compliance," the regulator said in a Competition Bulletin on its website.
"Ofcom may initiate separate investigations of named providers...or may move directly under this programme to take action where, for example, Ofcom has reasonable grounds for believing that a communications provider is contravening General Condition 22."
Steve Weller of uSwitch.com, an organisation which has campaigned against service providers charging for MACs, gave a cautious welcome to the new regulations.
"The 234,000 consumers switching broadband every month have a right to do so simply and free of charge. With this in mind we are pleased that Ofcom has taken a step forward towards resolving the MAC code issues."
Consumer journalism by consumers?
The web has long been the refuge of the embittered consumer. Company forums and dedicated complaint sites are filled with horror stories, but the veracity of those who complain is rarely known. Even the most sincere complaints are often so filled with invective that they can appear as little more than exaggerated rants.
"There are too many sites on the web with high-decibel complaining," NowPublic.com CEO Leonard Brody says.
"Too often, the signal gets drowned out by the noise. But by encouraging consumers to use the basic tools of journalism to get answers, I suspect that corporations might get the hint that here is a way to resolve issues in a more rational manner."
So will NowPublic.com and other citizen journalism sites become a credible outlet for consumers to research and report their own complaints?
"We have not yet actively sought out this kind of news activity," Brody says.
"When I saw your posting, and the response, I was quite thrilled. If our members were to use your posting as an exemplar, the whole area of consumer news might be remarkably reshaped. To promote civil reporting, discussion, and potential resolution - the prospect is inspiring."
Brody's enthusiasm may lead to a new outlet for consumers to blow the whistle on what mischievous companies have been getting up to behind our backs.
But can NowPublic's team of paid and volunteer editors ensure that submitted articles will be fair and accurate? The organisation's current passive policies will do little to silence critics of citizen journalism.
"If a story is bogus usually our community deals with it by burying it with indifference, through our moderation tools, and by the comments left on the site," Brody says.
Back to where we started
So does my own lamentable tale have a happy ending?
The Saturday before last was the day for the big move to a new ISP. On Friday I had received an email from PlusNet telling me to pay up within three days or lose my connection. So on Saturday morning I went to my new ISP's website to register with them.
At least that was the intention.
Instead, I found myself at a PlusNet web page asking for my credit card details. My connection had been disabled two days early. Whatever website I tried to access, up jumped the PlusNet nag page, insisting I must pay.
Defeated, but muttering under my breath that I would claim every penny back through the small claims court, I filled in my details and my connection was soon restored.
At that point I discovered that I was right back where I started - PlusNet had never actually closed my account. It had also charged £21.99 to my credit card instead of the £18.33 they claimed I owed. And they had added my card details to the unwanted account, ready to grab any money they wanted in future.
Although I can now move to my new ISP, the final slap in the face is that I must cancel my PlusNet account again, and that means another 30-day cancellation fee. A call back into PlusNet resulted in a promise to look into the matter and get back in touch. There's been no word since.
Frustrating for a consumer, yes, but great material for a consumer journalist. ®