I've banged on for a while about UK broadband speeds often not matching up to the speeds advertised by ISPs ("headline" speeds) - they normally advertise the maximum possible speed achievable (I'm tempted to say "by someone living on top of the telephone exchange in perfect conditions"), which is not necessarily, and indeed probably not, the average top speed that most internet users would experience in practice.
To date we've only had a voluntary code of practice on broadband speeds for ISPs, from December 2009, by which "ISPs who have signed-up to the Code commit to provide information to consumers before they enter into a contract about the maximum broadband speed they can expect on their line, and about the factors that will affect their actual speed. "
Recently, UK comms regulator Ofcom carried out a mystery shopping exercise (full PDF report by Synovate), and it may come as no surprise to many of us to know that they've found that ISPs aren't fully complying with the Code of Practice. Ofcom noted, "although more information on broadband speeds is now provided by ISPs following the introduction of the Code (-2-), information is still often not sufficient to allow consumers to have clear expectations about the broadband service they sign-up to."
From Ofcom, I've emboldened and italicised bits:
"The research found that the majority (85 per cent) 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 per cent) of these shoppers had to prompt providers for their speed late in the sales process.
In addition, three quarters (74 per cent) 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."
What explains the big differences? Well, Ofcom found that:
- ISPs use different methods to calculate and present line speed information
- Some ISPs often gave estimates for maximum line speed as a wide range (such as "10-20Mbit/s") - which could lead customers to expect much higher speeds than actually received.
As a result of the mystery shopping, Ofcom means to tighten the Code to ensure consumers are given adequate information about their broadband service when making purchasing decisions. "This involves working with the ISPs to ensure that they are able to give more consistent and accurate information on line speeds." More specifically, Ofcom said they'll:
- "work with ISPs to agree a consistent and accurate way of calculating and presenting access line speed information and amend the Code accordingly;
- amend the Code to require ISPs to commit to giving the access line speed estimate early in the sales process, i.e. before asking the customer for bank details or a MAC. Currently the Code only requires ISPs to give this information before completion of the sales process.
- find ways of ensuring that ISPs give consumers better information on why and how actual broadband speeds may be lower than headline speeds.
- explore with ISPs whether it would be appropriate to add a new provision in Code which allows customers to leave their contract period without penalty if the access line speed received in practice is significantly below the estimate given at the time of signing up."
Their press release said, "Ofcom expects to be able to agree changes to the Code by summer 2010. If agreement cannot be reached with ISPs, Ofcom will consider whether it is necessary to introduce formal regulations." And Ofcom indicated they'll also do more mystery shopping to check if there are improvements in compliance.
Frankly I don't think that's good enough; I previously pointed out the key shortcomings of the voluntary Broadband Speeds Code, which I thought wouldn't actually help consumers much, and it's disheartening to be proved right.
It's also disheartening for consumers that Ofcom are only considering working or exploring things with ISPs - why not involve consumer groups like Consumer Focus, or indeed the official Communications Consumer Panel?
I feel that consumers should be able to terminate their contracts immediately if they find the speed they actually get is significantly less than what they were told, rather than be stuck for a year on speeds much lower than they were sold on. The Ofcom Consumer Panel (the former name of the Communications Consumer Panel) had pointed that, and other issues, out as long ago as 2007.
For what it's worth, see Ofcom's advice for consumers on broadband speeds. More to the point, you might consider taking part in Ofcom's broadband speed tests, and even raising the argument that there have been unfair commercial practices on the part of the ISPs.