Consumer protection legislation applies to broadband contracts. Under the Sale of Goods Act (1979) and the Supply of Goods and Services Act (1982), retailers and ISPs providers must sell goods and services that are:
• of satisfactory quality
• are fit for purpose
• delivered as described
• have a proper standard of workmanship
Thus a consumer can claim a full refund or compensation if they can prove that the service was not delivered as described, wasn't fit for purpose beforehand, or was not to a satisfactory level of quality or workmanship.
These facts are relatively easy to establish in the case of a defective good – a bundled router, say – or if there's a complete failure of the service. Where you may have trouble is establishing that poor quality of service, such as a slow connection, breaks these requirements.
Many ISP contracts are heavily caveated when it comes to service levels, as these typical clauses demonstrate:
"In certain limited circumstances, we may not be able to provide you with the Services for technical reasons. If this happens we will use reasonable endeavours to let you know promptly. We will use reasonable endeavours to provide the Services to you at the speed you have requested, however we cannot always guarantee this."
If you do have a complaint against an ISP and can't get satisfaction through the normal complaints procedure, you can avail yourself of an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), which is a kind of arbitration process.
The Communications Act (2003) states that all communications providers must implement and comply with a dispute resolution scheme. This means that all broadband providers must be a member of either of the two main arbitration bodies – OTELO or CISAS – in order to comply with the Communications Act regulations.
The result is that every broadband customer will be protected by one of the two alternative dispute resolution schemes.
The MoneySupermarket website has a very good page detailing how to complain about poor broadband service.
Payment authority woes
These days many services will be only be provided if you pay for them upfront by direct debit or credit card. If you pay monthly by card, you create what is known as a continuous payment authority (CPA).
The big problem with CPAs is that they can be hard to cancel, unlike alternative regular payments such as direct debits or standing orders. As a result, it can be difficult for someone to obtain redress for their misuse by the service provider.
The two methods of payment may seem very similar, but they aren't. A direct debit is a relationship between you and your bank, while a CPA is an agreement between you and the retailer, authorising them to make regular charges to your credit or debit card.
Only the retailer can cancel a CPA – the customer cannot ask the credit card company or bank to cancel it on their behalf. Such agreements are, at present, unregulated.
This can result in situations where a vendor may apparently decide unilaterally that a transaction which you thought was a one-off was instead recurring, without needing any evidence. For this reason it's a good idea to avoid CPAs if you can – always make regular payments by standing order or direct debit, as they're much easier to cancel.
How to fire your ISP
If, like a lot of people, you're not happy with your ISP, you should vote with your feet and take your custom elsewhere. Thanks to Ofcom, this is now a simple-enough process. Switching between ISPs has been much simplified by the introduction of Migration Authorisation Codes (MACs).
A MAC is used to authenticate the migration request from your current to your new ISP. Migration is the process of moving between ISPs without actually 'ceasing' your ADSL connection, meaning that it should involve a minimum amount of downtime for your connection. This can be just an hour or even less, all things being equal.
MACs not only enable customers to move to a new broadband service quickly and smoothly, but they ensure that bills from the old supplier stop. They are so vital that some companies actually refuse to sign up new customers if they don't have a code.
Since February 2007, Ofcom's MAC Code of Conduct is now mandatory for all ISPs. If a customer asks for a MAC the provider must issue the code within five working days of the request, regardless of any dispute. The MAC is free the first time it's requested, but a cancellation fee for the service may still apply.
If the code is asked for more than once, the company may levy a charge. Once issued, a MAC lasts 30 days before it expires. Once a customer has passed their MAC to their new ISP, the new provider must try to switch across their service within 30 days.
The new provider will inform the customer of the exact date when they will be connected to the new service. Sadly, according to Uswitch, the new code isn't being adhered to. It found that 38 per cent of switchers failed to receive a MAC within five days as stipulated, and that more than half of all switchers had to ask more than once for their MAC before it was provided for them.
One in seven MAC requests failed to materialise at all. This is something that Ofcom clearly needs to monitor in order to ensure that it is implemented properly. These rule changes will help many people change providers more easily, but they don't cover every possible situation that you might face.
If you have a local loop unbundled (LLU) or cable connection, you won't be able to use the MAC migration service to switch providers, although some ISPs are trialling LLU MACs. If an ISP won't accept an LLU MAC then the connection (or 'asset') must be cancelled with the old provider and re-provided under the new provider.
Some ISPs charge for this: the current LLU system is costing some customers up to £50 per provider change. Finally, before dumping your old provider, don't forget to check that you're free of your contractual obligations. Has the minimum period expired?
If you've signed a contract, you will have to see it out or incur a cancellation fee. If you want to find out more about MAC codes, there are a few useful websites that can give you more information. We recommend trying www.maccode.org.uk and www.maccode.co.uk.
The Distance Selling Regulations (DSRs) don't just apply to purchases made online or by mail order. They also apply to broadband contracts, giving you the right to terminate your contract for any reason within seven days. So if you switch ISPs and quickly realise that you've made a big mistake, it's easy to cancel your new contract – and your ISP won't be able to charge you a cancellation fee.
The DSRs give consumers the right to clear information, a cancellation period of seven working days and protection against fraudulent use of a credit card. As well as the cancellation period legislation, the rules surrounding the use of credit cards can also apply to your broadband contract.
For example, if you applied for a broadband provider online and use a credit card to pay off your broadband fees, the DSRs may protect you from problems with refunds, late payment fees or cancellation charges.
First published in PC Plus Issue 281