An increasing number of complaints about mobile phone operators, ranging from the inability to get a signal to objections to price increases midway through fixed-price deals, has prompted renewed calls for fairer contracts.
Citizens Advice says that a growing number of consumers are "finding themselves trapped in mobile phone contracts which don't deliver the service expected". Gillian Guy, chief executive, said: "Last year we dealt with almost 28,000 complaints about mobile phone handsets and services. It's very frustrating if, month by month, for example, you are paying out for a contract only to find it difficult to make calls or send messages because the service is patchy."
Latest figures from telecoms ombudsman CISAS show that the official complaints about mobile phone companies soared by 50% from 1,600 in 2011 to 2,400 in 2012.
Richard Lloyd, executive director of consumer group Which?, said that mobile users are getting fed up with being locked into ever increasing contract lengths with shoddy service, with new phone contracts typically running for 24 months - a long time if your circumstances change or you cannot use your phone. He said: "These providers should be clear and upfront about their policies for allowing customers to get out of contracts. It's unfair if some customers can negotiate a cancellation with some operators but others can't and find themselves subjected to tough tactics. We'd like to see everyone able to leave contracts without penalty if they're getting poor service."
Ofcom publishes complaints data about major telecoms providers every three months, with the latest revealing that Orange and T-Mobile are the two most complained about service providers in the UK between July and September 2013, the two operators that merged to form EE in 2010, while 02 attracted the fewest complaints.
However, Ernest Doku from comparison site uSwitch.com said: "Finding the best mobile deal is not always just about cost. Consumers need to consider the service they'll get too, especially as the vast majority of pay monthly mobile deals last two years - it's quite a commitment. Getting a below-par service is not good enough, and consumers are right to feel hard done by. The good news for fed-up consumers is that Ofcom is focusing on addressing quality and value on the telecoms sector in 2014. It's just vital that the regulator listens to customer complaints and holds networks to task."
A spokesman for regulator Ofcom said it expects providers to ensure that cancelling or switching a communications service is a straightforward and hassle-free process for consumers, and new research planned this year into the quality of mobile reception and coverage, which could include information such as the percentage of "dropped" calls, as well as the sound quality of calls.
She said: "We would encourage any consumer experiencing problems with this process to complain to their provider. If the matter is not resolved to their satisfaction, consumers have the right to escalate their complaints to an Ofcom-approved alternative dispute resolution scheme, which will assess the case and reach a judgment it thinks fair."
Regulator Ofcom announced new rules clamping down on providers raising costs midway through fixed contracts last month, following more than 1,000 complaints being received about the practice. Ten companies, including Vodafone, BT, Sky and Virgin Media, had put up prices having offered a "fixed-price deal" when customers took out the contract. However, hours after the rules came into force, O2 announced a 2.7% price rise in a clause in its contracts under which customers will forfeit the right to walk away.
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Citzens Advice dealt with almost 28,000 complaints from consumers about the mobile phone operators last year.