Ofcom To Get Tough On Broadband Line Speeds

Ofcom is threatening to flex its muscles, after research showed that UK web users are still not getting the broadband speeds promised by their ISPs

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are still not coming clean with their customers over broadband line speeds, more than a year after the industry signed up to a voluntary code of practice, and leading industry regulator Ofcom says it is considering taking action.

Under this voluntary code of practice, ISPs are supposed to give consumers an accurate estimate of the maximum speed that their line can support before they enter into a contract and, in addition, they should also explain the actual speed may be slower.

ISPs Falling Short

However, a mystery shopper exercise carried out by Ofcom between October and November last year found that while ISPs are meeting some aspects of the Code, they are falling short in other areas. It found that the majority (85 percent) of telephone mystery shoppers were provided with an estimate of the maximum speed available on their broadband line before signing up with a provider.

However, almost half (42 percent) of these shoppers had to prompt providers for their speed late in the sales process. In addition, three quarters (74 percent) of mystery shoppers were not informed that their actual speed was likely to be below their maximum line speed.

The research also showed that shoppers often received a wide variety of different estimates of the maximum line speed from different ISPs for the same line. Having investigated the issue further, Ofcom has found that ISPs use different methods for calculating and presenting such line speed information.

Another problem comes as some ISPs often gave the estimate for the maximum line speed in the form of a wide range (such as 10-20Mbit/s), which sometimes leads customers to expect a much higher speed than they actually receive.

“Consumers are now receiving more accurate information at the point of sale about their broadband service,” said Ofcom Chief Executive, Ed Richards. “But our mystery shopping research reveals there is still significant further progress to be made, particularly in relation to the checkers used to calculate line speeds. We will work with the Internet service providers to ensure consumers receive the best quality information and amend the existing Code accordingly. We will continue to monitor and assess performance against the Code in the coming months.”

It is also about Quality, not just Line Speed

However, line speed is just one aspect that should be considered when selecting an ISP. Users should also consider the quality of the line as well as the broadband speed, a broadband expert has warned.

“The Ofcom research suggests that ISPs are clearly not living up to the code, and are not doing what they signed up to do,” said Tim Johnson, chief analyst at broadband analysis and data company, Point Topic Ltd, speaking to eWEEK Europe UK.

“They are kind of of not taking it seriously,” he added, “but the plain fact is that the general public just don’t understand broadband speeds are a bit of a black art anyway. That said, ISPs are not explaining the reason why the speeds are falling short of expectations. They do explain about distance from the telephone exchange etc, but often they do not talk about the ISP’s capacity, i.e. how many people share that line (contention ratios), and how speed can be affected at certain times of the day.”

“The best ISPs are missing a trick about not advertising the fact that they can offer better quality broadband,” he said. “The key about a quality broadband service is how resilient it is during peak time, and what will be the line speed during the peak time. The big ISPs don’t promote this concept, that is why we need next generation broadband, not just because it is faster, but because it is better able to guarantee line speeds and perform better for end to end services such as voice and gaming etc.”

“Traditionally, ISPs have offered a ‘best effort service’, but contention ratios expose the size of pipe the ISPs are prepared to pay for,” he said.

Ofcom Action

Ofcom is hoping that its warning will mean that ISPs will put their houses in order. It says it is now proposing to tighten the Code to address these issues. This involves working with the ISPs to ensure that they are able to give more consistent and accurate information on line speeds.

It hopes to agree changes to the Code by summer 2010, but if agreement cannot be reached with the ISPs, Ofcom will consider whether it is necessary to introduce formal regulations. It also plans to conduct a further round of mystery shopping research to check whether improvements in compliance has been made.