Resolving a problem with your broadband provider

DISCLAIMER: This is not legal advice.
Please contact your local Citizen's Advice Bureau or Solicitor if you need specific advice for your issue.

It is inevitable that every Internet Service Provider is going to experience problems which will frustrate customers. These problems may relate to policies, billing, support, technical problems or any other area of the contract between an ISP and an end user. There are several steps you should go through to escalate your issue if you are experiencing a problem with your ISP which we've outlined below:

1. Normal Support Channels

The first step is to take up the issue with the relevant department within your service provider. If you have a billing issue, you should discuss it with the accounts department whilst technical issues should be directed to technical support. This may be by phone, e-mail or web form.

If your issue is not resolved within a reasonable timeframe, you should try and escalate the problem within your ISP's organisation and get an acknowledgement of when you will receive a response from them. Remember that you are the customer and you are paying for a service which they are contractually bound to deliver. Although there will be legitimate limitations to your ISP's ability to speed things up if the problem relates to an issue with one of their suppliers, it is still their responsibility to deliver you a service (which they cannot blame on a supplier), so common sense is advised.

2. Internal Complaints Procedure

In the event that your attempts to resolve the issues through normal support channels are not successful, you should ask your provider for details of their complaints procedure. What you want them to provide is details of the procedure which leads to what is known as a "deadlock letter" which effectively states that the ISP has exhausted all opportunities to resolve the issue directly with you. The reason for this becomes clear in the next step.

Once you have details of this complaints procedure, you need to put your complaint formally in writing and ask the company to investigate it. All reputable companies will acknowledge your complaint and tell you within what timeframe they will be able to get back to you. If for some unforeseen reason there is a delay in the response, they should write to you and keep you informed.

You may also wish to consider contacting a senior person within the company, such as the Managing Director or CEO. If they do take up your cause it is likely the problem will be resolved quickly. It also makes sure they are aware of issues with their service which may not otherwise come to their attention. If over-used this tool usually loses its advantage.

3. Alternative Dispute Resolution or Court Action

On reaching this stage, you have exhausted all the possible options in resolving the matter directly with your service provider and if you still believe you have a valid case you have two broad options.

Every ISP that provides services to consumers and small businesses (with under 10 employees) that fall within the definition of a Communication Service Provider under the Communications Act 2003 (i.e. practically all broadband ISPs) needs to subscribe to an Ofcom-approved Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) scheme which offers easy access to impartial and free arbitration. There are currently two such schemes and you can find lists of members of each scheme at:

Ombudsman Services: Communications - http://www.ombudsman-services.org/memberlists/communications/
CISAS - http://www.cisas.org.uk/WhoisCovered-2_e.html

Alternatively (or technically even after an ADR case), you have the option of taking your ISP to court. You should consider this option very carefully as there is a possibility you could be liable for costs, but in most cases your claim will fall into the small claims track (below £5,000) and you will be unlikely to have to pay your ISP's costs even if you lose.

You should consider seeking advice from a Citizen's Advice Bureau or a solicitor if you have any doubt as to the merit of your case, although you do not need, and indeed most small claims cases do not have professional representation to make a claim. You can even start the process online on www.moneyclaim.gov.uk although you need to be prepared to attend court if your ISP defends the action. The court process may seem daunting but it is not complicated and it is designed to be as consumer-friendly as possible. It is important to remember a court is there to enforce the law, not to just look at whether you've had a raw deal. 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. See the link below to HM Courts Service for more details.

The Ombudsman Services: Communications and CISAS sites contain information on how to complain. If you intend to pursue court action, you should first write to your ISP and warn them you intend to do so, and give them an opportunity to settle. If you fail to do this, you risk not being able to recover your court costs even if you win.

The Internet Services Providers' Association (ISPA UK) also runs its own Code of Practice which you can use if your ISP is an ISPA member (check the membership list).

Other Options

There are other options you may wish to consider within the above to resolve your issue, such as contacting thinkbroadband (although please note we would only look into it if you can show us you have exhausted all your options to deal with the matter directly with your ISP. Also note that we have no power to require an ISP to rectify an issue, but we may be able to raise it to the awareness of the appropriate people at the ISP in question), or asking on our forums as many other users may have experienced similar problems. Often being able to discuss the matter with someone else may help you gain a new perspective on the issue.

Tips

Here are a few tips to help you choose an ISP and deal with problems:

  • When you choose an ISP you should consider the sustainability of their business model. Several "too good to be true" offers have shown that an ISP may not be able to sustain a level of service at a particular price point.
  • If you experience a problem, address the issue in a polite manner at all times. If required, be firm, but remain polite.
  • Pay by credit card - Your credit card company will be liable if your ISP goes out of business for example, as long as the amount in question is over £100 (in a single transaction)
  • Do not sign up to an ISP on the basis of price alone -- Whilst broadband is considered a commodity, quality of service varies dramatically across the market.
  • Seek lots of advice - Just because one of your friends only praises an ISP does not mean everyone has the same experience. Often it's when you experience problems that the true colours of an ISP are seen, and if you never have problems you may think your ISP is perfect, even though you are about to run into trouble when you actually need help one day.
  • Keep copies of all correspondence. If you call your ISP, note down any reference/ticket numbers and who you spoke to along with details of what was discussed and agreed. These will prove very useful if you need to argue your case later.
  • When sending material by post use a delivery service which gives you proof of delivery such as Royal Mail's 'Signed For' and 'Special Delivery' services.
  • Be careful if considering cancelling direct debits - These often result in your debt being passed to a debt collector.
  • Companies may attempt to fall back to the terms and conditions in your contract. Please be aware these may not be legally binding if they are in breach of the Unfair Contract Terms Act and other regulations regarding unfair terms in consumer contracts. This would be up to the court to determine and you should seek advice if you intend to rely on this.
  • You can report a problem to Ofcom for monitoring purposes but note that they will not investigate individual complaints. You should therefore consider other approaches to recover any losses.
  • If you have a problem with a "tag" on your line (an existing broadband service you can't cancel as you don't know who it's with thus blocking the ordering of a new service) your new broadband provider should remove this for you. If you know who the previous broadband provider is, you may be able to contact them to ensure this is removed quickly.
  • Check if your ISP is part of the Ofcom Broadband Migration Code of Practice and inform Ofcom of any breach.

Links

HM Courts Service - Making a Claim
Office of Fair Trading - Unfair standard terms in Consumer Contracts
Complain to Ofcom
Citizens Advice / Trading Standards - Advice for Consumers
ISPA Code of Practice