When: 6 November 2013
Where: United Kingdom
Law stated as at: 12 December 2013
Ofcom has introduced improvements to its voluntary accreditation scheme for price comparison websites (“PCWs”) to assist consumers when they are switching providers or choosing a new service.
Background on the scheme
The Ofcom Price Comparison Website Accreditation Scheme was set up in 2006 and is available to websites that compare the prices of communication services, such as broadband, landline and mobile telephone and TV services. PCWs can only advertise Ofcom accreditation if their services have passed a rigorous independent audit, which verifies whether the information provided to consumers is accessible, transparent, accurate, comprehensive and up to date. Note that in addition to the initial audit, PCWs must pass an annual audit in order for their accreditation to be renewed.
There are currently six (6) accredited members of the scheme.
BillMonitor and Mobilife compare mobile phone deals, Broadbandchoices.co.uk and Broadband.co.uk compare broadband deals and Cable.co.uk and SimplifyDigital compare landline, TV and broadband services.
Following a review of the scheme earlier this year, which generally found it to be working well, Ofcom has introduced a number of changes to make it even more robust.
Ofcom has decided that accredited websites will now face “spot checks” every three (3) months. Accredited websites must now also update their price comparison data at least every two (2) weeks, rather than at least every eight (8) weeks.
Further, Ofcom is now requiring accredited websites to:
• provide information about any limits on data usage that apply to services identified in comparison searches;
• explain that traffic management policies may apply and provide links to communications providers’ policies where available;
• provide “up to” broadband speeds for fixed broadband packages and explain that actual broadband speeds experienced may vary;
• alert consumers that their provider may increase the cost of their monthly deal and that they should be allowed to exit their contract without penalty if this happens;
• have fair and timely processes for complaints handling;
• provide general information on, and a link to, Ofcom’s work on broadband speeds;
• provide tools, or links to tools, for consumers to test the speed of their line;
• link to Ofcom’s comparative information on customer service and complaints handling, including regular information on the complaints received by Ofcom.
Ofcom has also decided to publish guidance on the audit process and on past audit decisions to help PCWs meet the approval criteria and has reduced the fees payable for PCWs with a relevant turnover of less than £200,000 to encourage smaller PCWs to sign-up to the scheme.
Ofcom expects accredited PCWs to implement any changes required by the amendments to the scheme as soon as is practically possible and will monitor compliance via its audits and spot checks.
Why this matters:
One of Ofcom’s duties under the Communications Act 2003 is to further the interests of UK consumers, which includes by encouraging competition. The accreditation scheme for PCWs is one way of doing this by providing consumers with reliable and helpful information that they can use to compare different services, empowering them to make effective choices.
The changes introduced by Ofcom should be welcomed as a further strengthening of the scheme meaning that the accreditation will carry even more weight in future. It would of course be good to see some more websites sign-up to the scheme, particularly given the explosion in the number of PCWs since it was introduced in 2006.
Price comparison services interested in being accredited by Ofcom can find more information about the scheme here.