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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

OFCOM & Broadband Regulation

I am getting more and more concerned about the increased volume of comments I am seeing of the ilk: “OFCOM must do xyz to sort out abc in the UK Broadband market” This will be music to a bureaucrats ears and OFCOM should proceed with extreme caution. OFCOM’s mantra should always be “We advise you to choose your Broadband Supplier with great care”. In other words they should actively be promoting that people should take personal responsibility for their decisions. I have admitted that I personally chose TalkTalk, made a mistake and now have been sent to Broadband Jail for the remainder of my contract period (approx. 11 months) sentenced for the crime of diabolical broadband decision making. I am hoping that at the end of my sentence I will become a fully reformed member of Broadband community again.

In my opinion, the sign of a good regulator is one that does the absolute minimum.

One of the key roles of the regulator is to ensure that there is enough information is produced in the market place to ensure that people can make informed decisions. Note, I have said the market rather than the regulator should produce the information. The negative publicity that TalkTalk have had in the marketplace is more than enough to ensure that people will have second thoughts before signing. Charles Dunstone is trying his best to say “We are performing now the same as the rest”, but independent surveys such as ADSLguide suggest otherwise. Also, the importance of the jungle grapevine should not be underestimated: people rely on their communications services whether fixed line, mobile or broadband so much that a popular topic for conservation is becoming “Who has had the worst broadband customer service experience and from whom?”

I’ve also heard many people complain about TalkTalk charges for customer service. I don’t think it is OFCOM’s duty to solve these issues. Already we are seeing Vodafone launch with a Freephone customer support line and I suspect many people will now be growing aware of hidden charges from broadband suppliers.

I’ve also heard people complaining about problems of losing service during the unbundling hand-over. The press is all over this and Openreach continue to publish their weekly kpi’s even though they are shameful in terms of fault rates. The question for the consumer is - do they think the reduction in price is worth the risk of downtime associated with a poor conversion? The problem of insufficient Openreach resources will be sorted as supply and demand is eventually matched in the long term, however I fear that the problems with line transfer will be much more difficult to solve. This is from many years of experience of cabling and having had the anoraky pleasure of seeing inside numerous exchanges. Whenever you start touching things which haven’t been touched in many a year chances are that problems will occur. Of course, Openreach will get better over time, but the fundamental problem is that physical work needs to be carried out on cabling for LLU.

Even where information is currently limited, OFCOM do not necessarily need to regulate.
For instance, it would be extremely useful if ISPs opened their networks to allow third parties to develop tools to provide third party metrics about the quality of the network and reliability of the services. In the near future, I know we are going to see an avalanche of broadband providers blaming everything on Openreach whereas in the majority of cases this is not going to be true, especially when we are talking of line speeds, bandwidth bottlenecks and particular service faults. An enlightened ISP would allow third parties access to their networks to provide metrics. Obviously, the ISPs with rubbish networks would not allow independent metrics to be produced and therefore consumers would be left with a real question mark over them whatever the ISP themselves claim. OFCOM could facilitate the process by getting the developers and ISPs together to agree on a common set of metrics and the required monitoring points. Only in the most extreme case of non-cooperation would OFCOM have to regulate.

The famous case of non-cooperation is the relatively few ISPs who are refusing to release MAC codes for people who want to change supplier. OFCOM have said now they are currently considering whether to change the voluntary code of practice to a mandatory one. Unfortunately for them Openreach have actually decided to act now by charging high prices for ISPs who do not provide a MAC code. This will force all the ISPs to provide MACs. If there is still a few not providing the codes then Openreach should double the prices. Eventually the ISPs will realise the game is up and start play to fair. No need for regulation at all, in fact hitting the ISPs in the pocket is much better than involved the bureaucratic OFCOM processes.

In fact, the only example I can think of where OFCOM should possibly regulate is on BT Openreach charges. This would only happen if BT was proven to securing monopoly rents from its exclusivity on the local loop. However, this is the area that OFCOM have given up the ability to regulate.

Perhaps there is also a case for regulation if BT refuse access to its exchanges to someone. However, this bridge should only be crossed in the highly unlikely case of it happening.