ASA To Investigate Phony ISP Claims

Time is up for claims like ‘up to’ and ‘unlimited’, says advertising watchdog

The UK’s advertising watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority, has announced it is investigating the accuracy of “up to” speeds and “unlimited” usage claims by fixed and mobile Internet service providers.

The ASA said in a statement that it would look into whether consumers could actually achieve the Internet speeds advertised by service providers, and whether their claims that usage of telecommunications services is “unlimited” are justified.

The ASA has produced two reports, in association with the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP), which examine the issues separately.

‘Up to’ broadband speeds

“At present, the ASA allows marketers to quote the theoretical maximum speed that a service could provide,” states the report on broadband speeds. “Both consumers and stakeholders are, however, increasingly concerned that, under the present ASA policies, a significant number of users receive a broadband service that is considerably slower than advertised.”

The existing policy is that speed claims based on the theoretical maximum speed are acceptable, as long as they are qualified appropriately. The ASA recommends refining this policy, either by requiring that a certain percentage of customers are able to achieve the advertised speed, or by including a statement of “typical” performance speeds.

The news follows a damning report by Ofcom last year that, while the average speed of Internet connections in the UK had gone up, the percentage of the advertised speed that was being achieved had actually fallen from 58 percent in 2009 to 45 percent in 2010.

“If consumers pay for a Ferrari-style Internet service, they should not get push bike speeds,” said Robert Hammond, head of post and digital communications at Consumer Focus, responding to Ofcom’s research. “Broadband users should get what they pay for.”

Ofcom has since launched new research into the performance of mobile broadband services over the UK’s five mobile network operators: 3, O2, Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone.

Is ‘unlimited’ data really unlimited?

Meanwhile, the ASA’s report on “unlimited” data examines the thorny issue of fair usage policies (FUPs). The watchdog currently allows advertisers to claim that a service is “unlimited” when it is subject to an FUP, provided that the existence of the policy is stated in the advertisement and the policy is “fair and reasonable”.

However, a poll by Ofcom, quoted in the report, reveals that less than half of consumers even know what an FUP is, with 32 percent of respondents mistakenly believing that their “unlimited” service actually is unlimited.

This is a particular problem for mobile phone operators, many of whom are struggling with the bandwidth strain caused by increasing use of smartphones for Internet access. Several operators have been forced to scrap their “unlimited” service offerings and impose monthly data caps.

The report goes on to suggest various refinements to its policy, ranging from the exclusion of FUPs that involve additional charges or suspension of service, to excluding services that include an FUP that restricts usage in any way.

The ASA is inviting interested parties to comment on its proposals using the consultation section of the CAP website. The consultation will close at 5pm on Friday 25 February 2011.