ISPs Defend ‘Up To’ Broadband Speed Claims

Service providers are scrambling to defend themselves against Ofcom’s criticism of broadband advertising

Internet service providers in Britain are defending their use of the term ‘up to’ in broadband advertising, claiming that every line is different and that basing marketing on ‘average’ speeds could damage the government’s plans for digital inclusion.

The news comes in response to research published by Ofcom earlier this week, which claims that very few consumers are able to get the headline speeds advertised by ISPs. The research revealed that just 14 percent of customers on ‘up to’ 20Mbps services received average download speeds of more than 12Mbps, while 58 percent received 6Mbps or less.

Ofcom is recommending that speeds used in broadband advertising should be based on a Typical Speeds Range (TSR), so consumers have a clearer idea of what speeds to expect, and that the TSR should be given at least equal prominence to any maximum ‘up to’ speed. A maximum speed should only be used if it is achievable in practice by “a material number of consumers”.

Average speeds meaningless?

However several ISPs argue that using a single ‘average’ speed for advertising is just as meaningless as promoting ‘up to’ speeds, because the speed of a connection depends on many factors, including home wiring, the applications being used and where in the UK people live.

“There are a lot of issues that affect the apparent speed of a connection. It is not simply a matter of ‘how fast can I download a big file’, though that is obviously an important point,” said Adrian Kennard, director of AAISP UK.

“As speeds get higher factors which previously did not matter, such as the software in the TCP stacks at each end, the load on the sending server, the latency on the link, and the impact of low levels of packet loss, can have more and more noticable effects. In many cases what an end user sees as ‘slow’ can be a latency issue or a DNS problem and not a line speed issue at all.”

Meanwhile John Petter, managing director of BT Retail, raised the issue that forcing ISPs to advertise average speeds could damage efforts by the government to roll out 2Mbps broadband to all British homes by 2015.

“Enforcing typical speed ranges is also dangerous as it could encourage more ISPs to cherry pick customers who will increase their average, leaving customers in rural and suburban areas under-served,” Petter told BBC News.

Unrealistic advertising

Other ISPs were quick to defend their own advertising practices. Plusnet said it offered customers a personalised speed range for their area, and TalkTalk touted its new Speed Checker service. Virgin Media, which achieved the best results in Ofcom’s average download speed tests, predictably welcomed the results.

“Ofcom’s latest report is yet another damning indictment that consumers continue to be treated like mugs and misled by ISPs that simply cannot deliver on their advertised speed claims,” said Jon James, executive director of broadband at Virgin Media.

This is not the first time that ISPs have been criticised for advertising unrealistic download speeds. In July 2010, Ofcom admonished ISPs for or continuing to advertise speeds which consumers were not able to receive.

“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, at the time. “Broadband users should get what they pay for.”

The Advertising Standards Authority has also waded into the debate, as well as the Institute of Commercial Management. Both are concerned that misleading broadband advertising is confusing British consumers.

Meanwhile, a recent poll by website ISP Review found that more than two thirds (68.8 percent) of UK Internet users would be put off from buying a new house if it lacked a fast broadband connection.