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Our Actions, Outputs and Stakeholder Engagement...

At its meeting in March 2009 the Panel discussed with Ofcom a draft of the second Mobile Sector Assessment consultation document. The Panel expressed concern that coverage was not one of Ofcom's priorities. It followed this up with written advice saying that it would like to see coverage referred to explicitly in Ofcom's list of priorities together with a commitment to carry out research to understand coverage problems better and act on the findings.

In June 2009 the Panel submitted an initial response to the consultation, reiterating its advice on coverage and signaling its intention to carry out research to find out the views of consumers and small businesses and so test its belief that frustration with coverage was widespread.  This research was commissioned in July 2009.  In September 2009 the Panel had another discussion with Ofcom colleagues, who outlined their plans to carry out research to explore the nature of coverage problems.  The Panel encouraged Ofcom to also work with the mobile operators to explore how information about coverage could be improved.

In October 2009 the Panel submitted a detailed response to Mostly Mobile, Ofcom's mobile sector assessment second consultation, drawing on the findings of its research, which it published simultaneously.  This research showed that around a third of people who use mobiles regularly had difficulty with mobile coverage.

At the same time as publishing the research, the Panel wrote to the mobile operators calling on them to provide more accurate and comparable coverage information so that consumers can make a better informed choice about which network to choose. The Panel also asked operators to ensure that consumers had a ‘try before you buy' option, allowing them to cancel their contracts if they could not get good enough coverage. The Panel followed up these letters by meeting the mobile operators in November 2009.

Many operators and third-party retailers did already have policies that allowed consumers to cancel if they did not get adequate coverage. So the Panel wanted to test the extent to which these policies were made known to consumers. Therefore instigated mystery shopping research to look at the accuracy of information consumers are given when asking about whether or not they would be able to cancel a mobile phone contract, if they found that they could not get the coverage they needed. The research looked at the seven largest mobile phone operators plus the two largest third-party retail chains.

While undertaking this research the Panel engaged with the Mobile Broadband Group, mobile operators and retailers regarding mobile operator policies and key messages identified from the research, prior to publication.  The Panel also engaged with Consumer Focus and Which? prior to publication and with relevant journalists at publication.

In July 2010 we published this research Can I cancel?  Mobile coverage and contract cancellation with recommendations for how cancellation policies could be improved by operators.  The research suggests that there is a strong risk that consumers will not be given the correct information about cancellation policies before they sign a contract. The research found that over half (56%) of people buying a mobile phone contract in-store did not receive accurate information about cancellation policies in the event of coverage problems.

Can I cancel? also found that operators and retailers had significantly different policies. In some cases operators would not allow customers to cancel contracts even if they had no coverage at all. And where consumers could cancel their contract the time limit allowed varied dramatically. Shoppers also had considerably different experiences depending on which operator or retailer they visited.

In November 2010 the Panel published an update to its work on mobile coverage cancellation policies. This showed that 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 Communications Consumer Panel.

Throughout 2010 the Panel has monitored the ongoing work of Ofcom on mobile coverage with routine engagement. In May Ofcom updated Members on its current research programme on mobile coverage (not-spots) and mobile broadband. The Panel encouraged Ofcom to consider using other data gathering exercises to give an overall picture of coverage problems, so that future efforts could be focused on the highest priority areas where consumer demand is high. The Panel also recommended that Ofcom explore coverage solutions as soon as possible by piloting possible solutions in problem areas.  Again Members encouraged Ofcom to work with the mobile operators to explore how information about coverage could be improved, and suggested that Ofcom publish accurate mobile operator relative coverage information as a lever to get operators to recognise coverage problems and start improving coverage.

In October 2010 Ofcom updated Members on its approach to mobile coverage and network quality issues, including a summary of the research on the impacts of not spots. The Panel expressed concerns that the action which Ofcom was proposing to take will do little if anything to meet the objective set out in its Annual Plan of making progress on mobile coverage.  The Panel was so concerned that it followed up this advice by a letter to Colette Bowe and Ed Richards. 

The Panel expressed the following concerns and recommendations:

  • Ofcom is relying on information too heavily as a remedy. It should balance the resource implications of pursuing mobile coverage information as a solution against the limited expected benefits and look at ways to address the market failure that has resulted in complete or partial mobile not-spots;
  • there are other remedies available that have not been properly considered. Ofcom should consider how to build on the Panel's success in making it feasible for consumers to ‘try before they buy';
  • the method used to measure coverage in Ofcom's analysis is misleading and any coverage statistics used should be fully explained so as not to be misleading;
  • Ofcom should revisit the conclusions of the Illuminas report before it is published to ensure that any conclusions are accurate and justifiable;
  • Ofcom's mobile coverage and spectrum teams do not appear to be adopting a joined-up approach and there could potentially be benefit from working together. It should consider whether the upcoming spectrum auction can provide any solutions to the mobile not-spot issue and cover this in the report; and
  • the wider social and economic impact of mobile not-spots has not been rigorously analysed. Ofcom should ensure that its research appropriately identifies, describes and assesses the social and economic impact of mobile not-spots on citizens.

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