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Informing and Empowering the Customer

The last five to ten years has seen a lot of change and upheaval in the UK telecoms sector. Change has been welcome on the most part, we have access to fixed and mobile broadband, and we can access TV and other media via our internet connection, while we can also manage our finances and households using a mobile device. Sounds great, but while most of us take broadband access for granted there are still residences and businesses throughout the UK that struggle to get a good connection.

This week I was audience to a panel debate hosted by Ofcom and Which? I was able to hear the reflections of key industry players on the progress which has been made in the past decade or so of digital disruption that has dominated our lives and livelihoods. The panel hosted by Alex Neill, MD of Home Products and Services at Which?, included Ofcom CEO Sharon White, John Petter, CEO of BT Consumer and Gary Pickering Director of Sales and Retention at SSE. BBC Breakfast’s Ben Thompson was on hand to chair the discussion and take questions from the audience.

Sharon White led the discussion with a speech laying out Ofcom’s policies and focus over the coming years. White came across as a real consumer champion, she was informed and engaging, emphasising the need for ‘cultural change’ across the UK telecoms sector. Particularly in relation to how the providers interact with customers, the quality of the services they offer and how those services are marketed and sold to the end user. She referred to the initiatives outlined in the Digital Economy Bill and a new Universal Service Obligation to ensure all UK homes and businesses will receive at least 10MB of broadband.

I admire White and Ofcom’s efforts to improve UK network services, but some of the challenges the regulator and the providers face became apparent during the debate. Mainly, infrastructure and investment challenges. For example, the issue of poor rural broadband connectivity (fixed and mobile) came up and the business case for operators to install superfast broadband in some areas was discussed. The topic of competition and greater freedom of choice was a concurrent theme throughout the debate. This included discussion around the separation of BT Openreach – the provider’s network arm – from BT itself and how this may lead to greater investment opportunities and new delivery models driven by the other players in the market. We’ll watch developments at Openreach with keen interest.

Ultimately, this was a discussion about empowering the customer, the impact of tariffs, pricing and broadband speeds. How customers perceive the operators, not just BT, and what kind of service they expect. So the Q&A featured questions from consumer groups raising issues about consumer protection and industry codes of practice. It appears that Ofcom and the providers are well aware of, and responding to, customer concerns. The UK telecoms market is a vibrant and exciting space, new market entrants include energy companies like SSE, that now provide home broadband, which puts a whole new slant on the ‘4th utility’. Power to the people, literally.

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