Last week, O2 announced a refresh of its mobile broadband offerings - an area in which it has been pretty weak in the UK so far. As part of its press release, it also yielded some findings from a consumer survey it had commissioned.
In particular, it highlighted the concept of "mis-selling" of mobile broadband - for example, customers' irritation at extra heavy costs for roaming that they hadn't been made aware of at the time of purchase, or what happens if promises of 3G coverage don't match reality.
Disabling "default" roaming privileges, forcing consumers to call customer service and get a lecture on the pricing realities obviously isn't as good as just lowering the cost to sensible levels, but should at least mitigate the risk of serious bill-shock.
More interesting to me is the idea of a 50-day money-back "happiness guarantee", which will apparently "allow customers, who purchased directly from O2, to return the device within 50 days of purchase with no termination fees being charged and any costs for purchasing the device being refunded".
It will be interesting to see whether this forces the competition into reciprocating. And even more interesting to see how this plays into the USB dongle vs. Embedded 3G notebook debate. It's one thing returning a dongle after a month - it won't need much "refurbishment" before it can be re-used. It's another thing entirely dealing with a notebook with an internal 3G module - returns management could be a nightmare for both customer and operators.
Just think about the practicalities for a minute - you buy an embedded-3G notebook. You configure it, download various new applications, start using it, set the passwords, register your copy of MS Office, start using the mobile broadband. Then maybe it doesn't work properly immediately. Or maybe it works OK in the study where you unboxed it, but not in the bedroom when you move it the next day. Or a week later, your network operator tweaks their local cell tower's set-up, or you move house, or you suddenly get congestion in your cell as 10 neighbours sign up.
So you go back to the shop. You complain about poor coverage. Maybe call customer services. You have a dilemma - you need to find another notebook, another operator, or both. If it's an "unlocked" 3G notebook, bought from an independent retailer, you can probably just try another network's SIM in the same device, without too much extra hassle besides sorting the cancellation and new sign-up. But if you've got a subsidised or locked notebook - perhaps bought from the MNO's own retail outlets - you have a problem. You would have to cancel the contract, download your data temporaily onto a USB stick or old PC (if you have one), delete your data & apps from the hard drive, and rebox it before returning it. Then the store would have to reformat the hard drive, check inside the PC to make sure you haven't added/changed anything (memory etc), reinstall all the bundled applications, test it..... and then find someone who will buy a "shop-soiled" laptop. And deal with all the back-office things like cancelling the MS Office licence.
Bottom line - I'd be very surprised to see anyone - including O2 for that matter - offering an equivalent return guarantee for embedded-3G notebooks. (If I'm wrong on this and someone's already doing such a policy, please let me know).