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Last year in April the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) and CAP (Committee of Advertising Practice) released new guidelines governing the advertising of broadband speeds and ‘unlimited’ broadband packages.

Darren Farnden, Head of Marketing

Darren Farnden, Head of Marketing

In a previous article ASA broadband guidelines – What will it mean for resellers? we discussed the details of the guidelines, the likely impact on end users and for the industry and what they would entail for resellers. We came to the conclusion that although we recognised that the ASA and CAP were attempting to protect consumers and prevent them from being misled, the guidelines would cause further confusion and could potentially have a negative impact on the digital divide in the UK. We feared that these guidelines would put a lot of providers off advertising altogether and that this could lead to speed information being withdrawn completely. A year on we review the situation and see what the effect has been.

Recap

Before the guidelines came into practice, the usual approach of ISPs was to advertise the speed of the broadband service based on an ‘up to’ maximum speed achievable by that technology. For example, an ADSL2+ service would be advertised as up to 24Mbps. The ASA and CAP believed that this practice was misleading to end users and that further clarification was required as many did not understand that they may not be able to achieve this theoretical maximum in practice, despite the availability of speed checkers on most providers’ websites. Therefore the ASA/CAP guidelines now require all ISPs (also now including mobile providers) to demonstrate that their advertised headline speed is achievable by at least 10% of their customer base. Furthermore, these figures should be reviewed every six months. All adverts should also include a warning that reminds the end user they may not actually achieve the advertised speed and that other factors can affect the service, such as length and quality of the line.

Reseller responsibilities

The new guidelines mean that resellers are now required to advertise headline speeds based upon the speeds achieved by 10% of their own customer base, not the wholesale supplier’s base. Therefore the reseller needs to calculate the advertised speed themselves and wholesale providers need to make the required information, reports and tools available to them so that they can. To aid this Entanet has provided a report for resellers made available via its synergi partner interface.

This was one of our key arguments against the guidelines before they were published as we felt that predominantly rural based resellers’ advertised speeds would look uncompetitive when compared to urban based resellers, despite them using the same technologies and providers and in effect causing even further confusion for end users.

71% don’t know their broadband speed

According to Ofcom, in 2012 actual average broadband speeds in the UK increased from 7.6Mbps in November 2011 to 9.0Mbps in May 2012. However, the confusion from the ASA guidelines has meant that this increase has not been noticed.

Last year we predicted that many ISPs would simply stop advertising broadband speeds altogether and that is what has appeared to happen in some cases. As a result users must have become even more confused and unclear about connection speeds. According to Ofcom 71% of users claimed that they were unaware of their ‘actual’ broadband speed. Furthermore, 68% of broadband users don’t know their advertised speed, which was a 5% increase from before the guidelines were put in place.

Andrew Ferguson, broadband expert at thinkbroadband.com, has said: “It is becoming more apparent that the solution providers are deploying is to mention no speeds and guide people to the line checker instead. The end result may be that consumers get more confused, as it is difficult to know which technology is in use on a particular service to see whether it’s any different to what they have now.”

The whole idea behind the broadband speed guidelines was to give clarification to users regarding what sort of speed they could expect but, as we anticipated, ISPs are often removing references to speed and therefore it isn’t helpful at all.

More pensioners browsing on the web than ever before

Nevertheless we have to take into consideration other factors that may contribute to the fact that over two thirds of broadband users are unaware of broadband speeds. There are an increasing amount of people currently on the web that can be described as less ‘tech savvy.’ For example, there are more pensioners browsing the web than ever before. 85% of them are unaware of their connection speed. However, Ofcom confess that 16-24 year olds were just as likely as those between 65 and 74 to not know. Therefore, although the lack of knowledge around broadband speeds admittedly could have been slightly affected by a change in the profile of broadband users, it does not explain 71% of users being unaware of their broadband speeds.

ISP cherry picking prediction

In our previous article ASA broadband guidelines – What will it mean for resellers? we also anticipated that the introduction of the guidelines may have further unintentional consequences and be open to abuse. We considered that some ISPs may consider not supplying consumers at the end of an exchange’s reach, where they might bring down their average performance figures, leading to them ‘cherry picking’ subscriber lines for the best results. We also anticipated that the need to have a good figure of speed data would drive ISPs to avoid heavy broadband users and congested areas to increase their average, leaving customers in rural areas under-served. As anticipated, in November 2012 The Guardian reported that Broadband speeds in rural areas were ‘less than half those in the UK’s towns and cities’. They went on to say that ‘Even for those with broadband, the digital divide between town and country is stark: average speeds in rural areas are 5.9Mbps, compared to 14.6Mbps in urban areas.’

We argued that, as the majority of ISPs would be concerned with getting a ‘good broadband speed’, broadband coverage in rural areas would continue to decline in comparison to more urban areas. What’s more, resellers that advertise their broadband speeds accurately and in line with the guidelines but who have a significant share of their customer base located in rural areas will be forced to advertise lower speeds, making them appear inferior to their urban area-serving competitors, despite them using the same providers and technologies. As predicted, many of these resellers were put off advertising completely and this has caused even further confusion to consumers as vital speed information is missing. Whilst we continue to applaud the ASA/CAP for their efforts to help educate consumers on this issue and clarify speed information, we still believe their current guidelines fall short of achieving this and in some cases are actually doing more harm than good. As we have mentioned previously, the most accurate way a consumer can predict the speed they will realistically achieve is to use a broadband speed and availability checker. Most providers make these available on their websites and this will enable them to gain a better and more realistic estimate of expected performance across the options available to them.

Have your say!
What are your thoughts and experiences regarding the ASA and CAP guidelines put in place in April last year? Do you think the speed guidelines have caused further confusion or have they provided clarity for end users? How did you react and implement the required changes and what impact have they had on your business? Let us know your thoughts by leaving us a comment below.

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