Since coming to power, the coalition government has made a big commitment to broadband, promising universal access across the country by 2015. Communications minister Ed Vaizey even went as far as to promise the "best broadband network in Europe" by the same date.
But, as countless Moneywise readers will testify, the government will have its work cut out if it is to achieve that goal in just four years.
Over the past few months, Moneywise has been investigating some of the myriad broadband issues troubling users across the UK, including dissatisfaction with speed (especially in rural areas), customer service, connection reliability, value for money, contract lock-ins and the highly complicated switching process.
At Moneywise, we think it's time to fight back. Read on to find out how.
Know where you stand
If you're stuck in the slow lane, the first step is to take an independent broadband test online to see how your connection is really performing. Try speedtest.net or top10.com/broadband/speedtest. If the broadband speed is a lot lower than promised, you'll need to take up the issue with your provider.
All the major providers have signed up to Ofcom's voluntary code of practice, due to come into force on 22 January 2011, which commits them to transparency when promoting their services. So, in theory, you should be in a strong position when it comes to complaining about a broadband service that's slower than the advertised speed.
However, even when the code of practice is introduced, its voluntary status means it will lack teeth and its implementation will be arbitrary.
Meanwhile, many broadband users who have told Moneywise about their attempts to get their complaints addressed say they have been repeatedly stonewalled by their provider and feel at their wits' end. But don't let unhelpful call centre staff deter you: get ready to fight your corner.
Get up to speed with your contract
Before contacting your provider, ensure your paperwork is in order and know what's in your contract.
"Find out what your provider has agreed to offer and whether you're bound by fixed terms," advises Hannah Clipston, a partner at law firm Thomas Eggar. "You'll also need to know whether you are required to give notice to stop your service, how to go about doing this, and what equipment you should return."
Clipston also recommends checking what remedies or compensation your provider has agreed and examining its formal complaints procedure.
All broadband companies are now required to be a member of either Otelo or Cisas. These are Ofcom-approved alternative dispute resolution (ADR) services that act as independent third parties to resolve issues between you and your provider. Call to find out which one your provider belongs to.
Know your legal rights
Your broadband provider has a legal duty to provide equipment of satisfactory quality, and services with reasonable care and skill, according to Clipston. "If your provider has not given you the service it agreed to, you may be able to end your agreement and/or ask it to pay compensation," she says. "This could be a refund or a reduction in your monthly payment."
You'll be in a particularly strong position to get compensation if you work from home or run your own business, according to Daniella Lipszyc, director of law firm Ultimate Law. "This is because if your broadband speed is not what you can reasonably expect, it may have had an impact on your productivity," she says.
However, what you can reasonably expect will depend on your contract terms and conditions.
Written complaints and negotiation
Once you've done your homework and defined your complaint, put it in writing.
"Set out clearly what your broadband provider agreed to give you, what it has actually provided and what compensation you want," says Clipston. "Be simple and specific, and support any allegations with paper-based evidence. Make it clear that appealing to Otelo or Cisas is an option and request a written response."
You should follow up your letter with a telephone call, adds Clipston. "Check your letter has been received and is being considered, and find out who is dealing with it. Always take the name and department of the person you've spoken to and try to speak to them directly in subsequent calls."
Taking it further
If the response from your provider is a letter stating that it can't do any more to resolve the problem, it's time to apply to one of the ADR services: Otelo or Cisas. The same advice applies if eight weeks have passed since you made your complaint.
For more information on how to apply and the rules of their respective schemes, visit otelo.org.uk and cisas.org.uk. Each can award up to £5,000 in compensation.
Take your custom elsewhere
Of course, the easiest way to fight back is to vote with your feet and take your custom elsewhere. The new, improved code of practice due to kick in next year states that, as long as a broadband provider's service has been confirmed as sub-standard, a consumer should be free to leave a contract early without penalty.
But, in practice, things are not that straightforward. For example, if speed is your concern, a clause states that it needs to be significantly below the estimated line speed range; the rules here are so complicated that the Moneywise team struggled to get its collective head around them.
A long way to go
Generally, however, things are far from rosy for consumers. Findings from comparison website broadbandchoices.co.uk show that, in a survey of 2,500 customers, a staggering 46% of broadband complaints were unresolved.
"We found many customers were simply not bothering to complain because they were so disillusioned with their provider's ability to help them," says its director, Michael Phillips. "Consumers should demand to be taken seriously."
Jonathan Leggett, head of broadband comparison website top10.com, agrees: "Being aware of exactly what you're entitled to and where you stand legally is critical to avoiding penalties and getting the service you expect. If you're unhappy with your service, it's important not to suffer in silence."
A brighter future
Complaining to your provider is never easy, but as Moneywise has demonstrated, some simple steps can reduce hassle and frustration, and improve your chances of getting the problem resolved. You no longer have to sit back and accept poor service from your provider.
But there remains a lot more to be done. Here at Moneywise, we believe providers should stop charging customers for services they don't receive, and we want to see hefty early exit penalties scrapped completely if the service is below par.
We are also pushing for a more transparent industry and for the switching process to be made more consumer-friendly. To help bring about these changes, sign up to our petition now at moneywise.co.uk/broadbandpetition