Broadband firms will be forced to repair faults quickly, speed up installation, improve reliability and pay out automatic compensation to customers hit by service outages under far-reaching plans announced today by the UK telecoms regulator.
Ofcom's Strategic Review of Digital Communications sets out how the regulator believes broadband, landline and mobile phone services should develop over the next decade, and the measures it intends to put in place to protect consumers.
The review concludes that Openreach, the division of BT responsible for maintaining the country's largest fixed line and broadband network, will have to allow competitor providers to use its infrastructure to build their own cable and fibre lines directly into homes and offices. There are also plans to overhaul Openreach's governance and make it more independent from BT.
Ofcom says it aims to ensure 95% of UK homes and offices can get superfast broadband, and 98% 4G mobile coverage, by the end of 2017. For more on your current broadband rights, plus our top picks, see our Cheap Broadband guide.
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Automatic compensation for loss of service
One of Ofcom's key pledges concerns what happens if broadband users are affected by breaks in service.
Currently users have to lodge a formal complaint with their provider, then escalate that complaint to the Ombudsman after eight weeks if they're not happy with the response – with no guarantee they'll get any compensation.
Instead, Ofcom says it will "seek to ensure that, if things do go wrong, consumers and small businesses receive automatic compensation for any loss of or reduction in service".
The regulator adds: "This will provide a significant incentive for providers to improve service and fix faults quickly."
There are no details yet on how the automatic compensation scheme may work though – and it's not clear when it could come into effect. Ofcom says the next step is for it to consult on the plans.
Quality of service improvements
Building on measures introduced by Ofcom in 2014, Openreach will be held to higher minimum requirements to repair faults and install new lines more quickly, as well as improve performance more generally, for example by reducing the number of faults. These new tougher minimum standards are due to be brought in later this year.
Ofcom will also publish detailed performance tables ranking broadband providers by service quality – which is intended to help users make better informed decisions about which firm to go with. And Ofcom will also provide clearer coverage info, adding broadband to the mobile coverage map it introduced last year.
Expansion of superfast broadband and 4G coverage
Ofcom has also set out a strategy to promote the roll-out of new ultrafast broadband networks and increase indoor 4G coverage to 98% by the end of 2017.
The role of non-BT providers will be key, as Openreach will be forced to open up its telegraph poles and 'ducts' (the tunnels that carry telecoms lines) to allow competitors to build their own fibre and cable lines directly into homes and offices.
This should help boost competition, and BT's rivals have welcomed the news – though some are still unhappy that Ofcom has stopped short of allowing them to build new separate networks, for the time being at least.
As part of the 'spectrum licence' (the right to use mobile signal) granted to O2 in 2013, it is obliged to provide 98% of the UK with indoor 4G coverage by the end of 2017. Other UK operators have agreed to match this.