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Voice of broadband and mobile customers is not being heard - consumer affairs expert

Monday, July 20th 2015 by Ellen Branagh

The government should do more to help organisations that speak out for broadband and mobile customers, the head of a consumer body has said.

Roger Darlington, chairman of the Consumer Forum for Communications (CFC), said the voice of the consumer is “very weak” when it comes to telecoms and other regulated sectors.

Debates on the future of the sector are often dominated by politics or industry, leaving little room for the customer, he said.

The CFC is an informal forum hosted by Ofcom that allows consumer representatives to share information and views and pass them on to Ofcom and those who shape the policies that affect consumers.

Mr Darlington, who is its independent chairman, said the forum gets involved in all major debates involving mobile and broadband regulation and legislation, including issues like switching.

Speaking to Cable.co.uk after he chaired a debate at a Westminster eForum seminar titled The Future of Mobile, he said: “What we feel is that in the communications sector and indeed in all regulated sectors – gas, water, electricity, telecoms, post, water, broadcasting – the consumer and citizen voice is very weak.

“It’s usually the producers of the networks or the services or the programmes who obviously have the resources to input in to the regulatory debates and have a massive vested interested in getting the regulatory outcome they want.”

All regulators, including Ofcom, should put the consumer first, Mr Darlington said, but in reality debates are often dominated by politics and industry.

He said consumer and citizen groups are often better placed to find out people’s views about complex issues like whether customers feel they will get a better deal on their broadband if BT Openreach was separated from BT.

'Knowing how to switch'

“That’s a debate that we will want to be very much involved in because it is potentially so important but it is so complex that your ordinary consumer is not going to make an input.

“Joe Bloggs or Jane Bloggs are not going to be making submissions to Ofcom on the Strategic Review [of Digital Communications].”

The regulation of the communications sector has often been focused on the supply side, rather than the demand side, Mr Darlington said.

“Over time, and Ofcom’s now been around for 12 years, there’s been a recognition that simply creating competing providers or competing networks and sitting back doesn’t do it for consumers – that consumers have real difficulty switching and knowing how to switch, choosing between competing products and services.

Mr Darlington said the consumer voice across the whole economy had “weakened” over the last five years and the government should do more to support organisations that speak for customers, including those who focus on accessibility.

“I’m particularly interested in consumers and citizens who have various vulnerabilities and special needs, so the blind and hard of sight, the deaf and hard of hearing, perhaps people with mental difficulties or mobility difficulties,” he added.

“Who speaks for them in these debates about broadband, about mobile, about 5G, about subtitling in television programmes?"

“I think government could do a lot more to support those consumer organisations that are interested in taking part in these debates.

“Government and regulators could more actively seek out views from consumer and citizen organisations instead of just publishing long, very complex consultation documents that are full of acronyms and conclude with a huge list of questions.

"And then they sit back and get long detailed submissions form BT, or EE or BBC but very little from consumer and citizen groups.”

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