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Broadband Speeds - Misleading Advertising?

Published on March 3, 2011
Tags: Internet Communication

We wrote last week about new powers being given to the Advertising Standards Agency to monitor online advertising content as well as more traditional means of marketing. Click here to read this article. Now it seems that ASA are even busier than they expected to be, thanks to a report from Ofcom.

It’s long been known that broadband in the UK rarely achieves the maximum speeds advertised by providers, with speed being one of the biggest complaints about broadband. Ofcom have been looking into the matter and they’ve found that the problem is fairly serious. For example, BT offers a service with ‘up to’ 8Mbps in terms of speed. The average speed that customers actually get, however, is between 4.1 and 4.8Mbps. This is by no means an isolated case: some providers fare even worse in the average speed test.

One of the main problems here is the different ways of accessing broadband. For those people who receive their internet through existing phone lines or via mobile networks, the speed tends to be much slower because of the limitations on the line. By contrast, cable and fibre networks such as those used by Virgin Media tend to be much faster and the average speeds are much closer to the advertised maximum speed. Virgin Media’s ‘up to’ 50Mbps broadband, for instance, has an average speed of 43.9 to 47.2Mbps.

If nothing else, this shows the importance of upgrading the broadband network with the latest technologies so people can achieve something nearer the download speeds they’re paying for. Of course, people accept that the standard of broadband is different in different areas, but it isn’t unreasonable to expect a certain level of service when you’re paying for a particular broadband speed. There is currently a big project underway, largely carried out by BT and Virgin Media, to install fibre optic broadband across much of the country. It’s hoped that this will increase broadband speeds by 50% within a year of the system going live. The government is also committed by EU law to provide basic broadband coverage to all citizens by 2013 (it’s currently a couple of years behind) and to provide speeds of at least 30Mbps by 2020.

But what about the current situation? The point made in Ofcom’s research is that it could be considered misleading advertising to say that broadband operates at ‘up to’ a certain speed if it then reaches nowhere near that speed. The ASA is looking into the matter but many broadband providers are unhappy about it. Ofcom thinks that providers should instead advertise ‘Typical Speed Rates’ (TSR) rather than ‘up to’ speeds as this is less likely to lead to confusion and false expectations.

BT, for instance, thinks that this would not be a good development as broadband speeds currently vary so much it wouldn’t be wise to advertise only one average speed – this is their justification for using the ‘up to’ speed proclamations. Another point raised is that to enforce TSR advertising would encourage internet service providers to carefully pick their customers in order to boost their average speed rating.

The impact of this could be that customers already annoyed at their slow connection speeds could have their situations made worse with fewer providers willing to take them on. It’s also hard to determine an average speed because broadband speed depends on so much other than just the means used to deliver it – household wiring, applications and where people live. By contrast, Virgin Media – who fared pretty well in Ofcom’s research – have said they would welcome TSR advertising as currently, they say, internet service providers are not giving their customers the credit they deserve and can’t deliver on the speeds they claim to offer.

As with so many other things, much of this debate is over advertising. Perhaps, though, more of the debate and energy should be spent on upgrading broadband systems in order to give people across the UK better internet coverage no matter which provider they use. After all, with the planned upgrades currently getting underway, the whole forum for debate will shift again in a couple of years anyway. Of course, truthful advertising is important and the ASA should investigate if there are concerns over misleading advertising, especially when so many people use these services. There is, though, also something to be said for actively doing something to improve broadband speeds rather than just worrying about how best to advertise them.

If you want to test your personal broadband speed to see whether you’re getting the service you’re paying for, you can do so here.

By Chelsey Evans

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