DISCLAIMER: This guide is not legal advice. Please speak to a qualified legal advice service, (i.e. Which? Legal Service) or your solicitor for specific legal advice.
We have received many requests asking how you can resolve a dispute with a current or previous broadband provider. In response to this we’ve created this guide to better inform you and suggest some ways to tackle the problem.
The first part talks about how to resolve a problem with your ISP using their internal complaints procedure and what steps you can take to get your case heard by a third party if you’re not happy with their internal complaints procedure.
The second part examines consumer law that relates to the broadband market and how you can use it to help resolve a dispute with your broadband provider.
The third part of the guide is a list of useful organisations you can contact who might be able to help you resolve your dispute and the final section lists our contact details if you want to speak to one of our broadband experts via Ask the Experts.
Resolving a Problem with your Broadband Provider
It is important to remember that most broadband providers do not set out to mislead their customers, they want to deliver a service to you that you are happy with so you will stay on with them. Many disputes usually arise from the customer not reading the small print of their contract, (55% of users surveyed admit to this) and this can often create situations where customers feel misled by their provider when being hit with a charge, which is usually outlined in the contract.
Other problems stem from specific policies around technical support, billing or other issues related to the terms of service within a broadband contract itself: (for example: 'I’m not happy with the broadband speed I get').
Problems around the kind of service a provider gives a customer is extremely tricky because there are extenuating circumstances, many of which are not the fault of the provider as they are reliant on other organisations to deliver the service to you.
Most problems can be resolved with your ISP one way or another as long as you are friendly, open and upfront about your concerns. Nearly all broadband providers use the same internal procedures to deal with problems.
Below is an outline of the steps you need to take to get a matter resolved with your broadband provider:
Normal Support Channels
The first step is to contact the relevant department within your broadband provider, so if you have a technical problem then you need to contact technical support, billing is the accounts department and so on. You can do this by phone, web-based customer enquiry pages or by email.
If you're not happy with the time it has taken to respond or how they have tried to resolve the problem, then you need to escalate the matter internally by asking for an acknowledgement of when you will receive a satisfactory response.
The broadband provider is contractually bound to deliver a service you agreed to pay for so they have to take your request seriously if you don't think they're keeping up their end of the agreement.
They might say it’s the fault of a third party supplier beyond their control, and this could limit their ability to resolve the issue quickly. However as your service provider, it is still their responsibility to deliver that service to you and they should still be able to give you a realistic timeframe and course of action to get the matter resolved for you.
TIP: Go back over your contract and read the section that relates to the "Service Level Agreement" or "Level of Service". This section is a description of the specific services that your broadband provider is bound by contract law to fulfil. If you don’t think your provider is meeting this service agreement adequately then you should have good grounds for your complaint.
Internal Complaints Procedure
If you reach a point where your attempts to get a problem resolved via normal support channels have not been successful, you need to ask your broadband provider for information about their internal complaints procedure.
Every reputable broadband provider will have an official complaints procedure and many of the larger broadband providers have a department dedicated to it. Some broadband providers have a two-stage complaints procedure, (i.e. low level and high level complaints) so that if a problem can’t be resolved at a low level it will be passed on to the high-level complaints department.
High-level complaints are usually dealt with more effectively because the people who work there can make more direct decisions about your case, such as removing money owed to your account, paying compensation or influencing the actions of third party suppliers.
Ask your broadband provider to give you details of the complaints procedure that leads to a “deadlock letter” – this is where your provider has exhausted all possible methods at their disposal to resolve the issue with you. By asking for a “deadlock letter” you are asking for evidence that may be used by you at a later date if the dispute continues and you have to go to arbitration or court.
Once you have details of their complaints procedure, write a letter formally asking your broadband provider to investigate your complaint. Every reputable broadband provider will acknowledge your letter and tell you when they will get back to you. If there is a delay they should tell you after a reasonable time the reasons why and inform you when you will get a response.
TIP: From this stage onwards, keep a record of all correspondence with your broadband provider, no matter how small. Try to avoid phone calls, use email and letters via recorded delivery.
Dispute Resolution or Court Action
If you have reached the stage where you’ve exhausted all possible options in trying to resolve the matter directly with your broadband provider then at this point you may want to consider alternative dispute resolution or court action.
In 2003 the communications regulator Ofcom drafted The Communications Act. The act sets out that all communication providers, (including broadband providers) need to subscribe to an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) scheme that offers access to impartial and free arbitration. There are currently two such schemes and each of these provide lists of their members:
Otelo – Office of the Telecoms Ombudsman, their job is sort out problems with communications providers and consumers – http://www.otelo.org.uk/membercompanies.php
CISAS – Communications and Internet Service Adjudication Scheme, offers the same service except they work in a slightly different way - http://www.cisas.org.uk/Members.asp
Technically you can still take your broadband provider to court after an ADR has looked at your case but most people tend to accept the decision of the ADR, especially since an ADR can force a broadband provider to pay compensation.
Taking your broadband provider to court should not be taken lightly. Our advice is do not proceed with court action if you do not think you have a strong case against the broadband provider. At this stage you can lose your dispute against your provider in court and it may cost you money in fines and fees if you lose, (i.e. for claims less than £5,000).
If you still want to proceed with court action, it’s a good idea to seek legal advice first. If you want free legal advice, Citizens Advice Bureau and Consumer Direct are both government-backed organisations that can help you.
Citizens Advice Bureau: http://www.citizensadvice.org.uk
Consumer Direct: http://www.consumerdirect.gov.uk
Which? offer a very cost effective legal service. For £12.75 for 6 months you get unlimited legal advice on consumer law. We think this is by far the best value and most effective method to get some good quality legal advice, quickly for a good price.
Which? Legal Service: http://legalservice.which.co.uk/
You may want to seek professional representation in the form of a solicitor, or you can even start the process of seeking court action online yourself without any support by visiting the HM Court Service site and submitting a claim online for the Small Claims Court, but you may need to go to court if the broadband provider wants to defend the claim.
HM Court Service: https://www.moneyclaim.gov.uk/csmco2/index.jsp
Going to court might seem over the top resolving a problem with your broadband provider but if the problem has given you a lot of worry and pain it might be the only way to get some kind of resolution. The court process is consumer-friendly - it is not designed to punish you or the broadband provider.
It is important to remember a court is there to enforce the law, not to just look at whether you've been treated badly. You need to have a specific claim for a specified amount you have lost to take court action this way. Filing of a case can cost as little as £30, although you may be liable for other charges throughout the case.
TIP: Before proceeding with alternative dispute resolution or court action, ask for a “deadlock letter” that specifies what your broadband provider has done to try to resolve your problem(s). This letter confirms that your provider has tried to resolve the matter using all possible methods at their disposal and can be used as valuable evidence in arbitration or in court.
If you intend to pursue alternative dispute resolution or legal action against a broadband provider, write to them first warning them that you will be doing this. For many broadband providers the cost of presenting a case for an ADR or for Small Claims Court is usually larger than the cost of the claim so in many cases they will want to settle before reaching ADR or court anyway.
Complaining to Senior Staff: There are a few people on our forums that have tried to contact senior representatives of a broadband provider, such as the Managing Director or CEO to get their problem resolved.
In a few cases this has been hugely successful and the problem has been resolved quickly, but this is rare. In the majority of cases when several broadband customers target a senior member of staff to resolve their problem it creates fear rather than resolution.
This approach may still work with smaller ISP’s but it is now highly unlikely that a senior member of staff from a broadband provider will be willing to take on a customer’s case, unless there are other motivations for resolving the problem.
Trading Standards: Some users on our forum have complained about their broadband providers to Trading Standards. Their argument is that they have been mis-sold a broadband product because they did not receive the service they expected.
Trading Standards is there to make sure that consumers are protected when buying goods and services and ensure that businesses adhere to laws and regulations around the buying and selling of goods and services.
It is highly unlikely that Trading Standards would take action for you against a broadband provider unless they wanted to use your problem as a test case against that broadband provider. Our advice is it’s better to go through the provider’s complaints procedure and then use alternative dispute resolution or court action because it’s quicker and more effective.
Use Forums / Ask Experts: One of the best ways to begin the process of resolving a problem with your broadband provider is to use online forums to share experiences with other customers. Not only will this reassure you that you’re not alone in having problems with your provider, but it may give you some useful insight into ways in which you might be able to get the problem resolved without needing to escalate the problem.
The Broadband Forum of Moneysupermarket.com is a good starting point, but there are several other forums also worth checking out, (Thinkbroadband.com and Moneysavingexpert.co.uk both have excellent forums about broadband) you might find people on these who can offer you some useful insight.
You can also ask our resident broadband experts a question in relation to your problem. Ask the Experts is available in a separate section of the forum where you can post a message they will respond to in 48 hours, they are also available via a freephone number, (open Monday – Friday, 9am – 5pm).
Consumer Law Relating to Broadband
This section looks at the some of the consumer law and regulation relating to the broadband industry and how it might be useful to support your arguments when you have a problem with your broadband provider.
Ofcom MAC Code Regulation 2007: As of February 14, 2007, the MAC code of conduct is mandatory for all providers. This means that all providers must adhere to the code's main principles:
- If a customer asks for a MAC the provider must then issue the code within five working days of request, regardless of any dispute. The MAC is free the first time it is requested but a cancellation fee for the service may still apply- if asked for more than once it may incur a charge. Once issued, a MAC lasts 30 days before it becomes out of date and unusable.
- Once a customer has passed their MAC to the provider they are switching to, the new provider must try to switch across their service within 30 days. The new supplier will inform the customer the exact date when they will be connected to the new service.
The aim of the MAC scheme is to reduce the number of customer complaints, lower costs to BT, ISP’s and the consumer, and to make it easier to change provider.
These rule changes will help many people change providers more easily but it doesn't cover every possible situation that customers might face. If you’re in dispute with a broadband provider over MAC codes our advice is to refer to the MAC code of conduct and make sure that you are fully aware of how it works and what effect it has on your case.
Communications Act 2003: Within the Communications Act it states that all communications providers, (including broadband providers) must implement and comply with a dispute resolution scheme. This means that all broadband providers must be a member of either OTELO or CISAS in order to comply with the Communications Act regulations.
This means that every consumer is protected in some form by one of the two alternative dispute resolution schemes. Please be aware that an ADR is there if you can’t get a problem resolved using the providers normal complaints procedure and does not act as a replacement for it.
Sale of Goods & Services Act: Under the Sale of Goods Act 1979 and The Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982 retailers AND service providers must sell goods that are:
- Of satisfactory quality
- Are fit for purpose
- Service is delivered as described
- Provide services to a proper standard of workmanship.
How this relates to broadband in the Act is that a consumer can claim a full refund or compensation if they can prove that the service was not delivered as described, was not fit for purpose beforehand, or is not to a satisfactory level of quality or workmanship.
Using these points in an argument with your broadband provider may give you some credibility but you would still need to find proof in an ADR meeting or legal challenge against a broadband provider and this could prove tricky.
The only way to argue the case for the Act is by looking at the terms of service within the broadband contract and seeing whether they have offered the service as advertised or referring to the “deadlock letter” and what the provider has done to resolve your problem. This may help you if you take the matter to an ADR or court.
Unfair Contract Terms Act: The original Unfair Contract Terms Act was in 1971, but has since been updated in 1995 to include a section on Consumer Contracts, (broadband providers contracts fall under this). What this means is that a consumer can submit a court action stating that they think their broadband contract is unfair and cite the Act.
The Act says that a consumer is not bound by a standard term in a contract with a seller or supplier if that term is unfair. This gives the Office of Fair Trading and others powers to stop the use of unfair standard terms, if necessary by obtaining a court injunction. Ultimately, only a court can decide whether a contract term is unfair, but in many cases broadband contracts are some of the most unfair terms of all, it’s useful to know that there is a legal precedent to protect consumers from poor contract terms.
Distance Selling Regulations: The Distance Selling Regulations give consumers rights when shopping on-line or by mail order. Under the Regulations, consumers shopping this way have the right to clear information, a cancellation period of seven working days and protection against fraudulent use of a credit card.
These rules are especially important if you have applied for a broadband provider online and use a credit card to pay off your broadband fees. Distance selling regulation may protect you from having a problem with refunds, late payment fees or cancellation fees as well as when you remove the provider’s monthly payment from your credit card when you change provider.
Useful organisations for dealing with broadband disputes
The following is a list of useful organisations that can help you resolve a problem with your broadband provider in different ways.
Ofcom – Office of the Communications Regulator set policies for broadband providers but they don’t settle individual disputes. Their website has a lot of useful information and they do log consumer complaints against broadband providers.
Tel: 0207 981 3000 / http://www.ofcom.org.uk
ISPA – The Internet Services Providers Association is the UK’s trade association for the ISP industry. Refer to their code of practice when in dispute with a provider
Tel: 020 3397 3304 / http://www.ispa.org.uk
BT Openreach – Provide the telephone network for communications providers to deliver their services. Call the number below if you have tag on the line.
Tel: 0800 023 2023 / http://www.openreach.co.uk
OTELO - Office of the Telecommunications Ombudsman. They are well placed to sort out disagreements between broadband providers and their customers through arbitration but only worthwhile when your provider cannot resolve the issue for you.
Tel: 0845 050 1614 / http://www.otelo.org.uk
CISAS - CISAS is an independent dispute resolution service for communications providers and their customers. It offers the same kind of service as Otelo, check their membership to see what broadband providers they cover.
Tel: 020 7520 3827 / http://www.cisas.org.uk
Citizens Advice Bureau – A great source of practical, reliable and up to date consumer information, including free legal advice on consumer issues. Various regional offices – check site for local phone services.
http://www.citizensadvice.org.uk / http://www.adviceguide.org.uk
Consumer Direct – Provides clear, practical consumer advice on a range of issues, regional advisors support their main call centre.
Tel: 08454 040506 / http://www.consumerdirect.gov.uk
Trading Standards – An excellent starting point for consumer protection information and advice. NB: Consumer Direct is connected to Trading Standards. Various regional offices – check site for local phone services.
Which? Legal Service – Excellent legal resource from Which? Pay £12.75 for 6 months legal support; they are specialists in broadband cases.
Tel: 0845 121 1584 / http://legalservice.which.co.uk/
HM Courts Service – Moneyclaim.gov.uk is the HM Courts internet based service for making and receiving small court claims.
Contact us for broadband advice
We are here to help you as much as we can. If you are looking for some advice on your broadband problems then contact our broadband experts.
You can ask our broadband experts any question about the broadband market, best deals or how to resolve any problems you might have with your provider. Ask the Expert is available any time and we normally respond to your questions within 48hrs.
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