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The Issue...

The Panel has been concerned for some time that many UK consumers, including small businesses, continue to experience problems making and receiving mobile phone calls. The Panel recognises that mobile internet and mobile broadband services may suffer from even greater problems with coverage than basic voice and text. However, these are relatively new services and the technology that supports them is still being rolled out by operators. Also, although usage is growing very quickly, mobile internet and mobile broadband services are not yet as integral to the lives of most UK consumers as voice and text services.

Improving coverage will take time and, in the meantime, consumers and small businesses need to be able to check where they can expect to get coverage before they commit to a mobile phone contract. The Panel's October 2009 research showed that coverage was a more important factor than cost for consumers when choosing a mobile operator. Consumers are currently encouraged to rely on coverage checkers, but these do not provide a completely accurate picture of where they will and will not get coverage. The data provided is not standardised and it does not help with very local issues such as indoor coverage. The Panel is concerned that, because of the importance of coverage in the purchasing decision, some consumers would sign up for mobile contracts on the understanding that they would get a certain level of coverage but would then find that this was not the case. They would then be left paying for a contract without being able to use their phone in the way they had expected. This is why the Panel called for people to be able to cancel their mobile contracts if they find they cannot get the coverage they need.

Our Objective...

To encourage the publication of better, more comparable information about coverage, encourage Ofcom to explore how mobile coverage could be improved, and influence industry to make it easier for consumers to cancel contracts on the basis of coverage.

Our Current Position...

The Panel remains concerned about the availability of reliable coverage information. Inaccurate coverage information will be confusing and potentially disadvantageous to consumers. The Panel wants Ofcom to work with industry to provide consumers with accurate, comparable information on the level of coverage they can realistically expect.

The Panel wants mobile operators to start focusing on quality of service and coverage rather than price and retention of profitable customers. Members feel the lack of interest from mobile operators in improving coverage is a key issue which must be tackled. While improving information on mobile coverage will help to encourage mobile operators to improve coverage, it has limited expected benefits where there are complete or partial mobile not-spots. The Panel wants Ofcom to look at ways to address the market failure that has resulted in complete or partial mobile not-spots. This includes considering whether spectrum auctions can provide any solutions to the mobile not-spot issue.

The Panel also wants Ofcom to identify, describe and assesses the social and economic impact of mobile not-spots on citizens via its research.

In terms of contract cancellation on the basis of coverage problems, the Panel wants mobile operators and retailers to:

  1. Improve their cancellation policies by:
    • making cancellation policies simple and consistent across their own products and retail channels; and
    • introducing a minimum 14-day cancellation period for coverage problems across the industry.
  2. Improve the information given to consumers about policies that allow contracts to be cancelled due to poor coverage by providing better:
    • training for sales advisors so they can explain policies when asked; and
    • in-store information about policies to support sales advisors

Our Impact

Using the research results from Can I cancel?, the Panel persuaded Ofcom to work on how to improve mobile coverage for UK consumers. In December 2009 Ofcom published a statement to conclude the Mobile Sector Assessment and confirmed its intention to carry out research on coverage problems and then consider how they could be addressed. Ofcom identified improving mobile network coverage as one of four consumer priorities in its 2010/11 annual plan.

Using the research results from Can I cancel?, the Panel called for operators and retailers to make their policies simpler and more consistent, and recommended a 14-day minimum returns period for customers with coverage problems. It also called for operators and retailers to improve staff training, so that sales advisors could give the correct information about cancellation policies when asked.

Throughout 2010 the Panel has developed stronger relationships with mobile operators leading to some operators responding positively to the identified need for training and requirement to improve coverage. When launching the research the Panel contributed to increasing consumer awareness through nationwide media coverage on radio, online and press and via direct consumer contact.

Many consumers will now find it easier to cancel their contracts if they do not get the coverage they need, thanks to changes made in company policies following pressure from the Panel. Four of the mobile operators and retailers surveyed in the Panel's research are making positive changes to their cancellation policies and the others have retained their existing policies, which in most of these cases already met the Panel's recommendations. All have reviewed the training and information given to sales advisors about the cancellation policies.

The most significant improvement is that Carphone Warehouse now has a single policy allowing consumers 14 days to cancel if they have coverage problems, rather than relying on the policies of the five mobile operators, and Phones4U has committed to implementing a single policy in 2011. These third-party retailers previously had many different policies, which made it much more confusing for consumers and sales advisors. The policies variously depended on which network the contract was for, whether the contract was bought in a store, online or over the phone, and required consumers to pursue their problem with coverage through complex internal processes that sales advisors were not always trained to explain.

Following the advice provided to Ofcom in October 2010 regarding the presentation of its mobile coverage progress report and research, Ofcom made a number of changes to its published document - Mobile Not Spots - an update on our work. The Panel also received a letter for Colette Bowe which stated that the Ofcom Board still considers mobile coverage to be an issue of great importance. Colette explained that Ofcom's objective in this area is to improve its understanding of the issues via research into not-spots and then use this understanding to consider whether there are any solutions within Ofcom's powers to improve coverage. In addition by gaining this knowledge Ofcom may be able to publish improved mobile coverage information and support any initiatives aimed at tackling the problem. Colette felt that the work it has done so far takes Ofcom very close to achieving these objectives, however Ofcom will continue with its work programme in the area.

Future Action to be Taken...

The Panel is delighted to see the industry responding to its contract cancellation proposals, which will make it simpler for consumers to know they can get redress for coverage problems. But it would still like to see all the providers offering a minimum of 14 days for all retail channels with transparent information about this right at the point of sale. As at November 2010, four companies in particular fall short of meeting all the Panel's recommendations. Vodafone and T-Mobile both offer 7-day returns periods, but the Panel hopes that they will consider implementing 14-day cancellation periods in light of the improvements made by their competitors. Three and Orange do not make their policies easily accessible to consumers. The Panel hopes that these operators will realise that making consumers aware of cancellation policies does not represent a risk when those policies are properly constructed. It hopes they also realise that the benefits in terms of customer experience and loyalty make it worth advertising these policies.

The Panel recommends that continuing engagement with mobile operators and retailers is undertaken in 2011 by Ofcom to develop industry minimum standards. The Panel recommends that the regulator takes action on mobile coverage cancellation policies, to protect the interests of consumers.

The Panel's mobile coverage research shows that mobile coverage is very important to people and large numbers of people and small businesses experience problems with coverage. The Panel wants Ofcom to continue work with industry to provide consumers with accurate, comparable information on the level of coverage they can realistically expect and look at other ways of improving coverage where there are complete or partial mobile not-spots. The Panel intended to continue to engage with Ofcom on this issue to ensure that it keeps this issue high on its agenda, due to its importance to consumers. Therefore the Panel is looking to continue this engagement and assess Ofcom's progress.

Relevant Links...

Improving mobile coverage cancellation policies: update, Nov 2010

Can I cancel? Mobile coverage and contract cancellation - main report, July 2010

Can I cancel? Mobile coverage and contract cancellation - annexes, July 2010

Response to Ofcom’s Mobile Sector Assessment 2 Consultation, Oct 2009

To support its response to Mostly Mobile, Ofcom’s mobile sector assessment second consultation the Panel commissioned research into consumers’ and small businesses’ experiences of mobile coverage. Watch the video showing people in London talking about their experiences of mobile coverage.

Mobile coverage: the consumer perspective - Research report, Oct 2009

Mobile coverage: the consumer perspective - Appendix, Oct 2009

Mobile coverage: the small business perspective - Research report, Oct 2009

Mobile coverage: the small business perspective - Appendix, Oct 2009

News release: Consumer Panel calls for ‘try before you buy’ solution to mobile coverage problems

Additional news releases for Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and the small business sector can be found on our news page.

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