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Ofcom Proposes Changes To Broadband Speed Claims

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

New code of practice to reduce consumer confusion over ISP ‘up to’ broadband speed claims

British communications regulator Ofcom has outlined its plans to impose tougher requirements on Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and their claims about the broadband speeds customers are likely to achieve.

Essentially, it wants to clamp down on the controversial “up to” broadband speed claims made by ISPs, to give people and businesses a more realistic speed expectation.

It comes after many years over controversy surrounding the use of “up to” download speeds in broadband adverts.

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Ofcom is considering ‘enhancing’ its current Codes of Practice that date back to 2008, which commit ISPs signed up to the code, to give customers an estimated range of speeds they are likely to receive, as well as the right to exit their contracts penalty-free if their speed falls below a minimum level.

In order to achieve this, Ofcom is planning a number of changes.

These include improving speed information at the point of sale and in contracts, by reflecting the slower speeds people can experience at ‘peak’ times, and by ensuring providers always give a minimum guaranteed speed before sale.

It also wants to ‘strengthen the right to exit if speeds fall below a guaranteed minimum level. Providers would have a limited time to improve speeds before they must let customers walk away penalty-free.’

And it wants to increase the number of customers who benefit from the Codes, by expanding their scope to apply to all broadband technologies.

“We want broadband shoppers to know what they’re buying, and what speeds to expect,” explained Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom’s Consumer Group Director. “So we plan to close the gap between what’s advertised and what’s delivered, giving customers a fuller picture before they commit to a contract. We’re also making it easier to walk away from a contract, without penalty, when companies fail to provide the speeds they promise.”

Ofcom also wants to include cable customers (Virgin Media) in this revised code of practice.

Expert Comment

Experts have been quick to give their views on the Ofcom proposals.

“Under these new proposals, from the point the issue is raised, providers will be given a 30 day window to get a customer’s broadband speeds up to their guaranteed minimum,” said Richard Neudegg, head of regulation at uSwitch.com.

“Failing that, the customer will have the right to exit the contract. Hopefully this move will drive providers to be more proactive in sorting out problems.

“Giving more information on what speeds consumers can expect can be a useful move but burying this more detailed information in each provider’s sales journey will only go so far. What we need to see – and what we have been calling for – is for this information to be opened up so that consumers can compare different provider speeds side by side at the point of comparison.”

“Consumers simply want to be able to quickly and easily compare what options they have for their own home, so they can work out which service best fits their needs. It is worth remembering that if you’re taking out a new broadband contract, always make a note of the speeds quoted by your new provider. If the service doesn’t measure up you should complain to them sooner rather than later.”

Meanwhile another expert is concerned whether the Ofcom proposals will actually benefit the majority of consumers.

“This really is the final frontier of protection for broadband customers here in the UK. Broadband remains to this day, as far as I know, the only service you can still buy with no guarantees about what exactly it is you’re going to get,” said Dan Howdle, consumer telecoms analyst at Cable.co.uk.

“By emphasising the slowest speed a customer is likely to get at peak times, speed numbers are likely to more closely match user experience,” said Howdle. “Whether or not this benefits the majority of consumers who are, by and large, unaware of how these numbers apply to day-to-day usage is questionable, however.”

“New rules on broadband speed advertising would have to be coupled with guidelines to ensure customers are informed as to how the speeds apply to the broadband usage of their household, otherwise it’s just a case of swapping one meaningless number for another,” he concluded.

Long Running

This issue of broadband speeds has been a bugbear for many people for many years now.

“Many people seek our help each year because their slow and intermittent broadband service falls short of what their contract promised,” said Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice.

“For most people, a reliable broadband connection is a necessity – so when they don’t get what they’ve paid for they should always have a quick and easy way out of their contract,” he added. “These changes are an important step in giving consumers more power to hold their broadband provider to account for poor service.”

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has also previously been involved in this debate, but critics argued at the time that the ASA’s decision to allow ISPs to still quote speeds “up to” a certain figure, if it was achievable by ten percent of their customers, was tantamount to lying to customers.

In April last year the British Infrastructure Group (BIG) said broadband advertising rules should be overhauled and mandatory refunds given.

Many ISPs in the UK have repeatedly broken advertising rules for broadband line speeds over the years.

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