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Changes to the General Conditions of Entitlement: what should the telecoms industry expect?

  • United Kingdom
  • Technology, Media and Telecoms - General

15-11-2017

Précis

In this article, we explore Ofcom’s recent statement and consultation in respect of the General Conditions of Entitlement (“GCs”), drawing a focus on the key changes that are due to come into effect whist examining what it means for both communications providers (“CPs”) and consumers within the telecoms industry.

What?

On 19 September 2017, Ofcom published its statement and consultation in respect of its proposed revisions to the GCs – the regulatory rules that govern the operation of all CPs in the UK. The revisions, due to come into force on 1 October 2018, will replace the current GCs with a comprehensive set of new rules and are divided into the following three sections: (i) network functioning; (ii) numbering and technical; and (iii) consumer protection. Alongside aiming to better reflect Ofcom’s current priorities and concerns, the revised GCs are intended to be simpler and clearer in their governance of CPs in the telecoms industry.

So What?

The recent statement and consultation follows two consultations undertaken by Ofcom in 2016, focussing on the areas of consumer protection and network functioning and numbering. We consider each area and its effect on CPs below.

Consumer protection

In light of the gradual changes in consumer behaviour and the perpetual developments in technology, Ofcom’s primary objective in the field of consumer protection has been to ensure that the GCs remain in line with current consumer issues and priorities. Aside from providing a more streamlined and user-friendly set of rules, a key change has been the implementation of more robust requirements on CPs. One such change is in respect of complaints handling, with CPs now being required to deal with consumer complaints in an even more prompt and effective manner. For example, certain onerous steps have now been removed to facilitate prompter access to ADR for consumers where complaints cannot be resolved. These rules apply to CPs providing public electronic communications services to both domestic and small business customers, where such customers make complaints about the services provided.

A focus on vulnerable consumers has also been taken, providing a new obligation on CPs to establish policies that take into account the specific needs of such consumers. Although the current GCs already impose certain requirements on CPs in relation to consumers with disabilities, the new rules now consider special measures should also be adopted for consumers subject to vulnerability, such as those suffering from illness or bereavement. CPs will now be required to establish and implement policies to this effect, including taking reasonable steps to identify vulnerable consumers and ensuring their fair and appropriate treatment.

There have also been extensions made to the current rules in relation to calling line identification facilities (e.g. ‘caller display’). The new rules will aim to improve calling line identification data, particularly concerning its accuracy and availability. Furthermore, Ofcom has sought to address the problem of ‘nuisance calls’ by imposing a requirement for the blocking of calls with invalid calling line identification data. It is anticipated that this new requirement will help prevent such calls getting through to consumers.

Network functioning and numbering

In respect of network functioning and numbering, Ofcom has sought to reduce and simplify its current rules. The new GCs will now “not go further than is necessary under the current EU regulatory framework” in an attempt to “remove certain elements of gold-plating” whilst removing provisions that are now effectively obsolete.

Ofcom has simplified and consolidated numerous rules, with the following being the key revisions: deregulation of the provision of operator assistance services (with an expectation that a range of operator assistance services will continue to be offered by CPs on a commercial basis, in the absence of regulation); removal of certain requirements relating to the design of new public pay telephone boxes (in addition to the removal of boxes from the GCs); removal of certain requirements on Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) providers in relation to both network availability and emergency call access; and removal of various Ofcom powers that are no longer used. As is the case with consumer protection, Ofcom will seek to further enforce the interests of consumers by strengthening regulation. A key example of this will see Ofcom’s power to withdraw number allocations. In practice, this will enable Ofcom to recycle unused numbers for future use.

Additional consultation

In addition to the above changes, various other issues are also being consulted by Ofcom in order to improve current rules. One such issue addresses inconsistently or misused telephone numbers (e.g. telephone numbers used for fraud or to cause nuisance), whereby Ofcom will have the power to withdraw such numbers. Ofcom will also provide useful guidance on how CPs should handle customer requests in respect of the termination of their contracts.

In summary, Ofcom’s new set of GCs will hope to achieve a more user-friendly set of rules whilst introducing additional obligations upon CPs to keep pace with both consumer interests and developing technologies. A final consultation on the GCs is due to run until 14 November with a final statement to be published by Ofcom in early 2018.

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