How to switch ISP

Changing your broadband provider is like switching banks: an unnecessarily over-complicated process that appears to be designed solely to discourage people from doing so. Although rule changes from telecoms regulator Ofcom have simplified binning your broadband provider, the industry is changing and consolidating so quickly that switching allegiances can prove as painless as root-canal surgery.

How to switch ISP

Dozens of ISPs offer competing packages on various platforms – some using their own infrastructure, others running over BT’s network – and, as our broadband survey shows, service and satisfaction fluctuates wildly.

Depending on your situation, looking for an alternative ISP could leave you without a broadband connection for weeks, force you to change telephone numbers, and even leave you temporarily without voice calls. Back when dial-up was king, a simple change of phone number in your DUN settings moved you to a new ISP – now it’s sometimes impossible to know who even controls your phone line, let alone how to make the switch.

Choose unwisely and you could be left hundreds of pounds out of pocket once cancellation, sign-up and reconnection fees have been factored in, and if you’re changing provider in search of a faster service you won’t know if the ISP delivers an improvement or not until after you’ve signed on the dotted line. The situation is so dire that Colette Bowe, chairman of Ofcom’s Consumer Panel, recently wrote to ISPs asking them to consider “extending the cooling-off period within your contractual terms to a sufficient length so that the customer can actually experience the speed and quality of the connection before becoming contractually committed”.

Her call may spark action, but in the meantime there are no certainties. What follows should provide the information you need to weigh up all the factors in switching ISPs without running up huge bills for a service that doesn’t really suit. Forewarned is forearmed.

Demanding a Mac code

Reclaiming ownership of your broadband has become considerably easier since the dark days when ISPs routinely made it difficult to switch by withholding vital information that would prevent your new provider from connecting to your home or office.

Since February 2007, under regulations introduced by Ofcom, ISPs have been obliged to provide you with a Mac code, the magic number that (theoretically, at least) enables you to switch between ISPs with minimum fuss. A Mac code should ensure minimal downtime; potentially as little as a few minutes.

The Mac system was set up to protect consumers, but industry insiders have told PC Pro that ISPs tell staff to be oblique when explaining the rules, often telling people they can only release a Mac code once the getaway fees have been paid.

This is nonsense – Ofcom says a Mac code must be provided “whether you are still in a contract or not”, and any financial dispute between the consumer and ISP can be settled later. If your ISP tries to withhold a Mac code, threaten to report it to the ombudsman. You’ll find details of how to make a formal complaint at www.pcpro.co.uk/links/160bb2. We’re also happy to name and shame ISPs that don’t play by the rules – send details to [email protected]

Bear in mind that if you’re subscribed to a local loop unbundler, Mac codes may not be available. However, there are alternative methods for switching in these situations…

Dealing with LLU suppliers

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