Christian M. 7 min read

What is Ofcom?

In the digital age, regulators like Ofcom not only ensure businesses get the best telecom services possible but also that the UK doesn’t end up looking like in Arnold Schawrsnegger’s classic “The Terminator”, where the unregulated tech development of corporations took us to an apocalyptic age!

Jokes aside, this article delves into Ofcom’s responsibilities, its impact on business broadband, and the future challenges it faces as technology evolves.

💡 Key takeaways:

  • THE regulator: Ofcom is in charge of ensuring fair competition, transparency, and quality of service in business broadband and other telecom segments, such as telephony, broadcasting, and even postal services.
  • Broadband regulations: Ofcom bases its broadband market rules on the Communications Act 2003, which includes quality of service standards, a transparent code of conduct, and conditions for infrastructure management.
  • Successes and failures: Ofcom has been acclaimed for clamping down on ‘misguided advertisements’ but slammed for the slow rollout of broadband in rural areas.

What is Ofcom?

Ofcom, or the Office of Communications, is the UK’s government-approved broadcasting, telecommunications, and postal services regulator. This includes television, radio, telephony, mobile, broadband and postal services.

Ofcom was established by the Communications Act 2003 to ensure that these sectors operate in the best interests of consumers, businesses, and the wider public, ensuring their high quality, accessibility, and affordability. It promotes competition, innovation, and investment in these sectors while protecting consumers from harmful or unfair practices.

Ofcom’s key responsibilities:

In broadcasting

Ofcom is responsible for licensing and regulating television and radio services in the UK, ensuring broadcasters adhere to the Broadcasting Code, which covers content, fairness, and privacy standards.

In telecoms

Ofcom oversees the telecoms industry, including fixed-line, mobile, and both domestic and business broadband services. It sets and enforces rules to promote competition, protect consumers, and ensure that essential services are available to everyone.

Spectrum management

Ofcom manages the radio spectrum used for wireless telecom services in the UK. It allocates and licenses spectrum use for various purposes, including mobile phone networks like 5G, radio broadcasting, and emergency services.

Consumer protection

Ofcom protects consumers from unfair practices, such as misleading advertising or poor service quality. It provides guidance and information to help consumers make informed choices and resolve disputes between consumers and service providers.

💡 SLAs: Service Level Agreements are signed as part of a broadband contract and define the minimum performance requirements of the service. This is essential for any quality of service complaints to Ofcom.

Postal services

Although not as central to its mission as broadcasting and telecommunications, Ofcom also regulates postal services to ensure they meet certain standards and are accessible to all.

Ofcom’s role in business broadband

Ofcom’s role is as the regulator, ensuring the market remains (1) competitive, (2) transparent, and (3) performant.

To do so, it leans on The Communications Act 2003, which gives it the authority to regulate the communications sector, including the power to set conditions, codes of practice, and other regulatory measures.

Here is more information on Ofcom’s three main functions:

(1) Ensures fair competition

Ofcom must ensure fair competition in the commercial broadband market to maintain a level playing field between business broadband providers. The regulator actively monitors the market to identify and address any anti-competitive practices:

  • Price fixing: Ensuring providers do not artificially inflate their prices.
  • Access restrictions: Ensuring providers do not impose unfair access restrictions that could limit a business’s ability to choose the best broadband service for their needs, including the availability of business broadband comparison services.
  • Market dominance: Ensuring that providers with a dominant position in the market do not abuse their power by excluding competitors or engaging in predatory pricing.

Ofcom has the authority to take enforcement action if it detects any of these activities. It can impose fines, order changes to business practices, or, in extreme cases, revoke licenses. These rules are written in the ‘general conditions of entitlement‘, which cover network access, interconnection, line portability, and consumer protection

Additionally, Ofcom undertakes a periodic business connectivity market review to assess the state of competition in the market for leased lines and other business connectivity services.

(2) Transparency and contract terms

Ofcom mandates that providers are clear and upfront about their offerings, so they are limited on the things they can advertise:

  • Advertised performance: Providers must accurately advertise the speeds that businesses can expect, both during peak times and off-peak times.
  • Hidden fees: Providers must clearly state all costs associated with their broadband services, including setup fees, monthly charges, and potential penalties for early termination.
  • Terms and conditions: Providers must present their T&Cs clearly, allowing businesses to fully comprehend their rights and obligations, such as contract

Ofcom uses a voluntary code of practice that providers must sign to enforce transparency compliance.

(3) Quality of Service standards

QoS is paramount for business broadband, as reliable and fast connections are essential for day-to-day operations. Ofcom focuses on the following:

  • Minimum performance: Setting minimum performance standards (e.g. broadband speed, latency, etc) for each broadband connection type ensures businesses get what they pay for, even when signing up for the cheapest business broadband deals.
  • Repair times: Ofcom also sets standards for repair times for service disruptions, ensuring that providers promptly address and resolve any issues to minimise the impact on businesses.

Ofcom uses predefined QoS standards that require signing SLAs to outline the level of service businesses can expect.

Additionally, Ofcom must ensure QoS over the physical infrastructure (e.g. cable broadband, ADSL, FTTP and FTTC, 5G antennas) and the landline infrastructure operators (e.g. Openreach, KCOM) that providers use to offer their services.

Ofcom leans on the Electronic Communications Code (part of the Communications Act 2003) to regulate the relationships between landowners and network providers to ensure they can be managed appropriately.

Ofcom’s impact on businesses through case studies

Enough theory; let’s examine Ofcom’s good and bad interventions through real-life case studies. The regulator has received both acclaim and criticism for its management of broadband networks.

Ofcom wins

Let’s start with some acclaimed positive action from Ofcom:

1) Improving transparency for small businesses

Advertised speeds used to come in confusing forms to misguide smaller businesses without a dedicated expert team when evaluating their options. Examples include advertising “Up to” speeds achievable under ideal conditions but not necessarily reflective of typical user experiences.

As a result, Ofcom introduced its first code of practice in 2016, and it was voluntarily adopted by all major business broadband providers such as BT, Virgin Media, and TalkTalk, committing them to giving businesses clearer, more accurate information about expected broadband speeds before they sign up.

A 2019 Ofcom report found that the code improved transparency and customer satisfaction. Businesses reported better experiences in choosing broadband packages that met their needs, and there was a notable decrease in complaints regarding broadband speeds.

2) Enforcing competition on leased line markets

In its 2016 business connectivity market review, Ofcom identified a lack of competition in the leased line broadband market, which is crucial for providing high-speed connections for businesses and public services.

As a result, Ofcom imposed new rules requiring BT to provide access to its dark fibre network, enabling competitors to use its infrastructure to deliver their own services. This led to increased competition, resulting in lower prices and more choices for businesses.

According to Ofcom’s 2018/2019 annual report, this move significantly contributed to a more competitive market, with businesses benefiting from a 13% real-term reduction in leased line prices between 2016 and 2019.

Ofcom losses

Here are two instances where Ofcom has been perceived to have fallen short (like any other regulator!):

1) Delays in rural broadband rollout

The UK government had set a target to provide superfast broadband (speeds of > 24 Mbps) to 95% of UK premises by the end of 2017. Ofcom was tasked with monitoring and supporting this rollout.

However, despite efforts, the rollout faced delays, particularly in rural areas. By the end of 2017, Ofcom reported that only 92% of premises had access to superfast broadband, falling short of the target.

As a result, rural businesses experienced continued connectivity issues, leading them to turn to alternatives such as satellite business broadband provider Starlink.

2) Slow response to unfair pricing practices

Ofcom had been aware of “loyalty penalties” in the broadband market, where long-term customers often pay more than new customers for similar services.

Critics argue that Ofcom was (and often still is) slow to address this issue. It wasn’t until December 2019 that Ofcom announced a voluntary agreement with providers to reduce business broadband prices for out-of-contract customers.

While the latter has been somewhat successful, businesses and consumers have been overpaying for their broadband services for at least a decade, leading to a lack of trust in the market.

The future of Ofcom

We must briefly note on Ofcom’s future role because Web 3 is only around the corner, and a firm regulator is needed to ensure compliance with user privacy in the digital age and the development of AI.

At the time of writing (March 2024), the UK government is proposing an Online Safety Bill, where Ofcom may be given new powers to regulate online content, tackle harmful material, and ensure the safety of users on digital platforms without sacrificing privacy.

The UK also lags behind in terms of infrastructure, and Ofcom needs to help accelerate this so that UK businesses remain competitive. For example, 5G speeds are behind those in countries like South Korea, Brazil, and the US, while full-fibre business broadband remains largely unavailable to rural businesses.

In any case, digital development continues to go exponentially, so expect Ofcom to become increasingly relevant despite its mixed back of successes and failures.

Ofcom – FAQs

Our business broadband experts answer commonly asked questions regarding Ofcom, the British telecoms regulator.

How does Ofcom handle broadband service complaints?

Ofcom does not directly handle individual complaints but requires providers to have a complaints process in place. If a complaint is not resolved to the customer’s satisfaction, it can be escalated to an independent Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) scheme, such as CISAS or Ombudsman Services, which Ofcom approves.

Can Ofcom help my business get a better broadband deal?

While Ofcom does not intervene in individual cases, it sets standards for broadband speeds and monitors providers’ performance. If you’re experiencing consistently poor speeds, you can report this to your provider, and if unresolved, escalate it to an ADR scheme.

Can Ofcom help me get Universal Service Obligation (USO) broadband?

The USO is a government initiative to ensure that everyone in the UK can access a minimum level of broadband service. Ofcom is responsible for implementing and monitoring the USO, which currently guarantees a right to request a broadband connection with a minimum speed of 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload.

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