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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 February 2007, 07:57 GMT
Broadband switching set to ease
By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News website

Home net user, Vismedia
Broadband has become hugely popular in the UK
The process of moving to a new broadband supplier in the UK should get easier this week.

On 14 February new rules come into force which change the way that all the UK's broadband providers handle the process of switching suppliers.

The rules stop broadband firms charging customers for switching and try to remove other barriers to the process.

Net firms that put obstacles in the way of customers keen to switch could face heavy fines from regulator Ofcom.

Bad experience

More than three-quarters of all net connections in UK homes are now through broadband. Fierce competition and the appearance of new entrants has forced prices down and many consumers are looking to move suppliers to save themselves some cash every month.

However, not all those that are switching find the process a quick and easy one.

According to price comparison website USwitch more than 234,000 people are moving supplier every month. About 83% of this total switch with little or no fuss, says Ofcom but this means perhaps 40,000 consumers every month have trouble of one degree or another.

Many of the problems that people report revolve around Migration Authorisation Codes (Mac). These are the 17-18 alphanumeric identifiers issued to customers by the broadband supplier they wish to leave. The Mac is passed to the new broadband firm someone wants to sign up to so the line they are using can be identified.

Some broadband users have contacted the BBC news website about their experiences and how difficult it can be to move.

Tom Szirtes was unhappy with the service from his ISP Pipex and wished to swap to another provider.

"Each time I eventually got through to them they promised to send me the Mac but never did. I don't know if that was down to incompetance or a delibrate strategy, but I regret to say so far it has worked as I've not yet left them," he said.

Mary King has been trying to swap from BE to TalkTalk since September. A series of adminstrative errors were blamed for the delays and she was eventually given the 14 February, the day Macs become compulsory, as the date for the shift.

"Until MACs are compulsory, the potential hassle and inefficiencies of the present system are a real turn off to changing suppliers," she said.

Often the process involves sending lots of e-mail messages, calling a company time and again and waiting weeks for anything to happen.

Some disgruntled consumers have set up websites to gather information from fellow sufferers.

Network cables, BBC
Many problems revolve around equipment in exchanges
Prior to 14 February not all broadband suppliers used the Mac system. This meant that many of those keen to move had to wait days or weeks until their line was "cleared" before they could sign up for a new service.

"Moving broadband supplier should be like gas and electricity," said Steve Weller, head of communications services at USwitch. "You do no go without those for two weeks when you switch."

New rules

After 14 February all net service firms must use the Mac system and supply these codes within five days of being asked for them.

Also net suppliers are no longer allowed to charge for issuing a Mac code or to levy any fee on the switching process.

"A charge is an impediment to switching," said a spokesman for Ofcom, "and no obstacles should be put in the way of customers once they are out of contract."

The spokesman said that in the past migration codes have been withheld from consumers because of financial wrangles between suppliers.

Ofcom nameplate, Getty
Ofcom will fine firms that stop customers switching
From 14 February this too is ruled out as a reason for refusing to issue a Mac.

"We do not think it is fair that customers should get caught up in disputes with commercial providers," said the spokesman.

The rules will apply with full force to those try to switch after 14 February. However, said the spokesman, consumers should remind firms of their new obligations if they have been delaying an attempt to switch that began before that date.

The spokesman encouraged people to tell it about poor treatment even though Ofcom did not investigate individual complaints.

"We can track trends and if there is one provider that is a repeat offender we can investigate."

Breaching the new conditions could land broadband suppliers with a fine of up to 10% of their turnover.

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