Rules applicable to all UK telecoms operators to change

Last week Ofcom started a consultation on revising the UK’s General Conditions of Entitlement and Universal Service Conditions. The consultation closes on 7 April, and will be followed by a statement, with implementation on or before 25 May 2011.

The changes are part of the UK’s implementation of the revised European Framework for electronic communications. In addition, (although not expressly part of this consultation) the UK will need to take account of the recent European judgment on the UK’s Court of Appeal’s reference as to what obligations may lawfully be imposed on designated universal service providers. This Ofcom consultation follows the broader, now closed (with responsibility transferred to DCMS), BIS consultation which covers wider changes to the Communications Act 2003, the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006 and the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003.

Within Europe and the UK, the scope of telecoms (or as it is more accurately now described, electronic communications) regulation is very broad, and as (some of) the General Conditions do, and will continue to, apply to any Communications Provider, the consultation will be of broad interest.

The main changes proposed are:

  • a requirement that number portability takes place within one working day of an activation request being received by a donor Communications Provider. This will apply to fixed, mobile and bulk mobile porting requests and is to be backed up by accessible compensation schemes where this deadline is not met (GC18);
  • access to emergency services (112/999) is to be provided via  SMS (GC15) as well as clarifying the scope of the access and the provision of location information obligation on network providers, resellers, VoIP providers (GC4);
  • changes to mandatory contract terms (GC9):
  1. ‘the maximum duration of initial consumer contracts will be 2 years; and users generally must be offered an option to contract for the provision of public electronic communication services and also make this information available to other end-users on request;
  2. subscribers must be able to withdraw from contracts penalty-free following a notice of contract modifications; and for a maximum duration of 12 months; and
  3. contract termination conditions and procedures for termination must not act as a disincentive to end-users from switching their providers.’;
  • an extension of the requirement to maintain proper and effective functioning of the network to mobile and nomadic networks (GC3);
  • the introduction of a process for transferring number allocations and permitting time-limited number allocations (GC17); and
  • the introduction of an obligation on Communications Providers to provide end-users with access and the ability to use services behind any numbers in the European numbering plan, including non-geographic numbers. Although the wording change appears small, this could have significant impact on access to VoIP and other services (GC20).

Whenever changes are made to rules with general application it is inevitable that in addition to the intended consequences there will be unexpected or unintended consequences. Whilst contemporary press coverage focused on the changes to contract terms affecting retail contracts for smart phone contracts (views were mixed), and access to emergency services via SMSs (positively received) my suspicion is that the more ‘technical’ changes to the definitions, requirements to maintain network functionality, provision of location data, ‘number trading’ and most importantly the end-user right to access and use services will have much more significant long-term impact, even though not highlighted in Ofcom’s executive summary.

6 thoughts on “Rules applicable to all UK telecoms operators to change”

  1. Interesting. Can you explain a little more about the final point on the obligation to provide end-users with access to and use of any services behind telephone numbers, and what you think the intended and unintended consequences might be ?

    • Historically, services have been bundled with network access. For services where that isn’t the case (eg indirect access, carrier pre-select, etc) network operators would rationally favour their bundled services over competing service-only offers, in the absence of regulatory constraints. As a result regulators have needed to intervene. We currently have significant vertical disaggregation in the provision of services such as VoIP and DQ where there are already anecdotal stories of integrated services being favoured. Whilst this new GC doesn’t address discrimination issues per se, as these start to bubble up I would expect service providers to look to this GC to ensure access and argue that ‘use’ implies something about price, terms and conditions. You can think of it as being akin to the GC 1 obligation to negotiate interconnection in a multi-service world.

  2. I agree with your final point about the non-headline issues being more important in the long term.

    The changed definition of Communications Provider to which General Condition 4 applies (ie 999 calling) means that PBX networks now have to comply with the obligation to provide caller location information for 999 calls.

    Previously this obligation applied only to public telephone network operators.

    This is important for PBX networks (typically IP-PBX networks) that have a centralised break out point.

    At present 999 location information provided by public telephone networks refers only to the central break-out point of a PBX network and may be totally inaccurate if the 999 caller is at a remote site.

    The new General Condition 4 will mean that the PBX owner/operator will now have to ensure that the correct location information is provided to the 999 call handling agent (ie BT or C&W).

    This is similar to 911 legislation in the USA and will mean the adoption of PBX location identification solutions that are similar to those deployed in the USA.

    • Stephen

      You raise a really good point, and a great example of the ‘unintended consequences’ I referred to. We’ll need to see the final text to form a definitive view, but your reading is certainly plausible but not addressed in Ofcom’s policy discussion. As a matter of best practice where changes are made that may impose regulatory burdens on markets players the impact should be consulted on. Regulation by accident is never sensible – although the concern you mention is one that Ofcom, given its duties, should explicitly consider and address.


      • Rob

        I’m not sure how much flexibility Ofcom have to amend the proposed GC4 text given that it reflects exactly the wording in the EU Directive.

        I would also make the point that the proposed changes simply formalise what was best practice for telecoms network design in the days of TDM PBXs where it was relatively easy to arrange local PSTN break-out for 999 calls thereby addressing the caller location issue.

        The proposed changes address the 999 challenges presented by IP-PBXs and ensure that organisations use the solutions available to ensure accuracy and reliability of location information.

        To be honest I don’t think Ofcom understand the 999 challenges presented by IP-PBXs even though they should be aware of these for the following reasons:

        · Ofcom are members of the Government 999 liaison committee where this issue has been raised several times

        · I have presented to the 999 liaison committee (including Ofcom) describing the problems presented by IP-PBXs and the solutions that are available

        · Ofcom should be aware of what their counterparts in the USA are doing in this area where 911 regulation is much stricter than that proposed for the UK (taking my interpretation of the proposed GC4 wording)

        · I have had a dialogue with Ofcom on this issue since publication of the EU Directive in 2009

        · I participated in the BIS consultation and specifically highlighted the impact of changes to Article 26 on 999 calling from PBXs. I was advised that my points would be passed to Ofcom.

        The above points would imply that it the proposed changes should not be “regulation by accident” since Ofcom have been made aware of all the issues in good time to make market participants aware of these issues.

        I would also find it odd that Ofcom would not be aware of the implications of changing the definition of Communications Provider in GC4 particularly when the key change is that GC4 no longer applies exclusively to public telephone networks. The obvious implication is that GC4 should in future apply also to private telephone networks.

        Furthermore, Ofcom’s own guidelines to the General Conditions state that own-network operators are a Communications Provider and must comply with those General Conditions that are not restricted to providers of public telephone services. In other words they must comply with GC4 from 25th May 2011.

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