Forty-three-year old Lenny Russell, from Heywood, near Manchester, is desperate to switch to a new broadband provider having endured a catalogue of problems with AOL.
Lenny, a warehouse operative, has been a loyal AOL customer since 2004, but has found there's been a real dip in his speed and service since the UK arm of AOL was bought in December 2006 by The Carphone Warehouse, which also owns TalkTalk broadband.
"I pay a flat monthly fee of £9.99, but since the takeover, the speed has fallen, and the connection keeps cutting out," he says.
Lenny has complained to AOL about these technical problems on several occasions, but is disappointed by the customer service he's received.
"AOL kept trying to tell me there were problems with my computer when I knew the problem was with its connection," he says. "It then rang me up offering me a new package, which included both broadband and phone calls – but I said I wasn't interested."
At the beginning of February, Lenny called AOL to request his migration authorisation code (MAC) – the code required to switch providers. "I was then told I was contracted to AOL until September," he says.
"The conversation escalated into a full-scale argument when staff disputed I'd ever received the call from AOL inviting me to sign up to a new deal."
Lenny now plans to switch to Sky as soon as his contract ends. "As I'm already a Sky customer I can benefit from six months free broadband if I sign up to its unlimited package," he says. "I just hope I won't encounter any more problems with AOL between now and then."
Lenny is just one of many suffering substandard service from their broadband providers, with slow speed being the single biggest case of dissatisfaction, according to the regulator Ofcom.
It found that while the average advertised broadband speed in the UK is 7.1 megabits per second (Mbps), internet providers only deliver 4.1 Mbps.
But speed is not the only thing customers complain about, according to findings from the 2009 broadband complaints survey from comparison website broadbandchoices.co.uk, which show that while the top gripe was disappointment with connection speed, this was closely followed by customer service and reliability of connection.
Given that there are so many grievances about so many aspects of broadband, it's disappointing to find that more than half of those who had complained felt their complaints were not successfully resolved.
Even more worrying, findings show that over a third of dissatisfied customers had not bothered to complain at all, with a third saying it was because they thought it would be too much hassle.
A further 23% said they did not have any faith in their provider's ability to resolve their complaint, and a fifth said they did not know how to complain effectively.
But while raising a complaint is never easy, there are some simple steps you can take to reduce hassle and improve your chances of getting the problem resolved successfully.
"Be wise before the event," says Michael Phillips, product director at broadbandchoices.co.uk. "Even if your relationship with the provider is running smoothly, make sure your paperwork is in order.
"Keep your bills filed in chronological order and keep all correspondence between you and the provider."
If you have a complaint or grievance, you should always approach your provider's customer services department and explain your problem; if that doesn't resolve the issue, you can then make a formal complaint to the company.
"Insist that it explains its official complaints procedure to you before you enter into a dispute," says Phillips.
Maintain a call log detailing each call that you make to your provider, and keep records of what has been agreed.
"If you're complaining in writing, keep all correspondence in case you need to refer back to it at a later date," says Gareth Kloet, head of utilities at confused.com, another price comparison service.
"Also stay calm, as you're more likely to get a good result if you're not shouting down the phone."
If your complaint hasn't been resolved within eight weeks – or if your provider has sent you a ‘deadlock' letter saying it's not going to do anything else about it – you can try an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) scheme.
"All internet providers must, by right, be a member of one of two Ofcom-approved ADR schemes known as Otelo and CISAS," says Kloet.
"These act as an independent middleman between the provider and customer when things go wrong, and both can advise you on the next step to take."
Alongside these compulsory consumer protection rules from Ofcom on dispute resolution, there is also a voluntary code of practice, introduced in December 2008, which requires that providers offer greater clarity on the speed that customers will actually receive – and the factors that slow this down.
"Providers that have signed up can no longer publish the headline top speeds which many broadband users realistically have no hope of ever experiencing – particularly if they live in rural areas," says Phillips.
Elsewhere, there are also lots of rules and regulations around switching, including the requirement to provide a MAC code if requested; your existing provider is legally obliged to give the code to you within five working days of a request, and this is valid for a period of 30 days.
To progress the switch, you then need to present the MAC to the new provider, which will then process the request to migrate.
While you should then be transferred with little or no disruption of service, this is not always the case as many users have encountered problems at this stage.
However, don't let that deter you. With more than 200 broadband packages available with different speeds, usage limits and customer service propositions, it really is worth shopping around to see what's available; figures from broadbandchoices.co.uk suggest consumers can save more than £200 by making the move.
If you are considering switching, compare deals in your area, as packages and costs vary by postcode.
Also check the terms of the contract set down by your existing supplier, as most operate for a fixed term of 12 or 18 months, and you can be charged for ending that prematurely.
"Before moving elsewhere, try haggling with your existing provider," says Phillips. "Your provider will not want to lose your custom, and you'll be surprised at how much you can get by hinting you are willing to leave." Also think carefully about what type of broadband user you are.
"If you only use the internet to check your emails every so often, you'll probably only need a basic service, so there's no point in paying for extra downloads," says Kloet.
"Also check what speed you're currently getting by using a broadband speed checker (go to broadbandspeedchecker.co.uk), and compare this to the speed you are capable of receiving on your line, as there's no point paying for high speeds if you're not actually going to be able to achieve them."
Further, if you already pay for a home phone and digital TV service, it may be worth bundling up with one provider, as there are often discounts for customers who do this – plus the added convenience of having just one bill to keep track of.
Figures from Ofcom show 44% of consumers now have bundled packages, and that savings of as much as £140 can be made by bundling.
Finally, at the end of last year Ofcom announced a range of proposals to improve the existing regulation of complaints handling in the telecommunications industry.
Under these initiatives providers will, for example, have to publish their complaints processes in an accessible place on their website and set out established time-frames for complaint resolution.
There are also plans to increase awareness of the Ofcom-approved dispute resolution services. The consultation period on these proposals closed in March.
Sort the wheat from the chaff
While it's easy to tar all providers with the same brush, there are some exceptions, and in the latest customer satisfaction research from broadbandchoices.co.uk, O2 was a stand-out winner – voted best standalone broadband provider in categories including speed, customer service and value for money.
O2 also came top of last year's customer satisfaction report from uSwitch.com, another price comparison service, and was joined at the top by Plusnet and Sky.
At the other end of the scale however, uSwitch.com found that AOL customers complained of services being too expensive, speeds too slow, poor connection quality and inadequate support from customer service centres; Orange and BT were also languishing at the bottom of the tables.
"There is a significant difference between broadband providers in terms of cost, quality of connection and customer service," says Steve Weller, communications expert at uSwitch.com.
"It seems that some of the more established broadband companies have lost sight of what customers want – speed and reliability, backed up by efficient customer support."
Customers calling technical helplines were best served by O2, which came out top for technical support with 75% satisfied, according to uSwitch's report; it keeps customers waiting an average of just two minutes to speak to an adviser, while TalkTalk, with 56% satisfied, keeps customers waiting an average of 12 minutes.
Stands for either Migration Authorisation Code or Migration Access Code and is a 17-19 digit alphanumeric code used when switching broadband providers and allows broadband customers to switch between providers with minimal, if any, disruption to broadband service. A MAC code is like a serial number used to identify your broadband connection within the local exchange. If you’re switching provider and it has this code, it can simply move your connection over to its service. Customers apply to their current provider that will issue the unique MAC code, which is then given to the new provider, but it’s very likely the new provider will do this on the customer’s behalf.