Why is switching internet provider such a pain?

Broadband has two characteristics that make it incredibly irritating. First, it’s become essential to our daily lives: we need it for everything from checking our bank account to checking train times. Second, most of us have no idea how it works, or what to do when it goes wrong.

So when we switch providers and we are let down, it can be an absolute nightmare.

In the past eight years, the market has changed dramatically, with the appearance and disappearance of scores of companies, a flurry of takeovers and new offers appearing every week. This means many people find their deal has become uncompetitive, or customer service has deteriorated, and they need to switch.

In 2007, Ofcom recognised that switching was a headache, so it endeavoured to streamline the process. In theory you simply contact your old provider and ask for a migration access or ‘Mac’ code, which your new supplier needs to ensure you don’t suffer any downtime during the switch.

It has five days to provide the code, then you contact your new provider and it has five days to arrange a switch. Finally, you cancel the direct debit to your old supplier.

Of course, in reality it’s not that simple because getting your Mac code is easier said than done. Problems with Mac codes are the fifth most common broadband complaint to Ofcom, which confirmed there was an ongoing investigation into Prodigy Internet, for failing to provide Mac codes, adding that there were ‘occasional’ problems with other providers for the same failure.

Emma Walters, a teacher from Buckinghamshire, had a similar problem with her provider. She says: "We had to have a couple of stern chats with them after they failed to respond to our first request for a Mac code. Then they phoned back and couldn’t have been more helpful. It annoyed me that they were so protective over the code, some people must just give up at that stage."

Other companies provide codes that don’t work. When Ralph Tuckwell, an independent consultant from Reigate, switched from Nildram to Be Broadband, he got a Mac code that he entered on Be’s website. "Be got back to me and said it didn’t recognise the code, so I got another one, submitted it, and was told it didn’t recognise that either. I couldn’t afford to waste any more time so I put them in touch with each other and they worked it out," he said.

Other companies fail to release the line. This is known as a leaving a ‘tag’, and happens when BT Wholesale isn’t told the line is being given up. When the new provider contacts BT, it is told the line is being used, and the application fails.

It’s the second most common complaint about broadband, with 7,000 instances last year. Ofcom calls it ‘a failure of processes’ with ‘no quick fix’. It recommends calling the new provider and asking them to get the tag removed.

It was the tag problem I struck when I tried to switch to Orange Broadband from Sky. I waited in vain for five days, and when I chased it up was simply told the switch had failed. It took five attempts, four Mac codes, and intervention from the executive office to arrange my switch.

It’s easy to get put off, which is good news for any over-priced, poorly operating provider, who gets to hang onto business. In fact, Ofcom says 10% of consumers who haven’t switched said it wasn’t because they were happy with their provider, but either because it was too much hassle, or they were too busy.

But it doesn’t take a failure in technology or customer service to leave you stuck with a provider. Broadband companies do their best to structure packages to make it difficult to leave. Some tie you up in bundled packages of broadband, telephone, mobile phone and TV, so switching one means switching all.

According to Ofcom 40% of users now have bundled packages. And if you thought it was a headache changing your broadband provider, try switching all these services at once. That’s probably why Ofcom figures show that 13% of broadband users changed provider in 2007, but only 4% with bundled packages have ever switched.

Others are tying people into longer contracts, signing them up for a minimum of 18 months, and telling them they have to pay if they want to leave early. These are legitimate ways to tie you in, and the only way to avoid falling foul of such conditions is to check the small print before you sign.

However, if you’re prevented from moving by an error with your provider, or a nefarious practice, there is something you can do. The first step is to be persistent with your new provider and your old one. I was passed to no fewer than six departments, many of which tried to pass me back to one I had already called. I eventually ended up with someone who could help. Emma, likewise, eventually found a useful staff member.

If you have exhausted time and patience, you can complain to Ofcom. It can rap companies over the knuckles, and impose fines for persistent offenders. It can also advise on how to get your dispute resolved. There’s a great guide at ofcom.org.uk or, if your broadband is playing up, you can call 020 7981 3000.

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