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There has been an ongoing industry debate over controversial advertising practices regarding broadband for quite some time. ISPs have been criticised repeatedly for advertising broadband quoting maximum achievable headline speeds and for claiming that packages include ‘unlimited’ bandwidth when they are actually subject to Fair Usage Policies (FUPs) and/or traffic shaping. Some argue that advertising broadband in this way causes confusion among customers, often setting their expectations unrealistically high. Therefore last week the ASA (Advertising Standards Agency), BCAP (British Code of Advertising Practice) and CAP (Committee of Advertising Practice) outlined their latest proposals for tackling the issue.

Darren Farnden, Head of Marketing

Darren Farnden, Head of Marketing

Commenting on the review the ASA state: “In 2010 the ASA asked the bodies that write the Advertising Codes (CAP and BCAP) to review broadband speed claims in advertisements as part of a wider look at advertising in the telecommunications sector.

CAP and BCAP are now consulting on their proposals for new advertising guidance on the use of “Up to” broadband speed and “Unlimited” usage claims in telecommunications advertising.

The key issues are whether consumers can actually achieve advertised speeds and “unlimited” usage of telecommunications services as claimed. The objective is to produce guidance for the industry to aid their interpretation of the Misleading Advertising sections of the CAP and BCAP Codes.”

While we agree there needs to be clarity and accuracy around broadband services we have significant concerns over the review’s proposals which are currently based on the following options:

  • Option A – Maintaining the ASA’s present policy.
  • Option B – Advertised speeds must be available to at least 10% of users.
  • Option C1 – Advertised speeds may be based on theoretical maximum performance but must be accompanied by an indication of typical performance expressed as a range.
  • Option C2 – Advertised speeds may be based on theoretical maximum performance but must be accompanied by an indication of typical performance based on the actual speeds available to at least 50% of users.
  • Option D – Quoted speeds must be available to at least 50% of users.

Aside from the fact that option A is unlikely to be chosen because it’s already deemed insufficient, we think that none of the remaining four options are workable because of the technical and physical limitations of broadband infrastructure and also ISP contention. For example, an ISP with a predominantly rural based customer base is likely to have a much lower average achievable speed than a competing ISP selling the same fundamental services within a predominantly urban area. The rural based ISP would be forced to advertise speeds significantly lower than the urban based provider, even though the services are fundamentally the same. This then provides an unfair advantage to urban based ISPs and potentially expands the already controversial digital divide even further. In fact, we can imagine ISPs refusing to serve customers that are located further away from their exchanges because their inclusion could negatively affect the headline speed that the ISP is allowed to advertise.

A further problem arises with monitoring and updating these calculations. When would the calculations be made and how often would the provider need to update them? Broadband customers regularly switch providers and, due to the vast customer bases of many ISPs, the calculations are likely to fluctuate on a very regular basis. Secondly, how would these calculations be monitored to ensure that they are accurate? Surely in order to assess the accuracy of the calculations a ‘moderator’ would need to gain access to the entire customer base of the provider, raising concern about security and data protection among both providers and customers.

There must be another way!

We believe there is. In support of the headline speed the ISP could state the percentage of users that achieve, for example, 90% of their sync speed as throughput. This approach would highlight those ISPs that force high levels of contention on their broadband suppliers. This would demonstrate that the pile them high sell them cheap approach taken by some ISPs leads to a poor customer experience and would allow end users to have a realistic guide as to the service they are going to receive.

Whilst more realistic, this approach would still lead to concerns about data integrity, however this could be addressed through regulator actions and spot checks.

Additionally, the review proposes the following ‘qualifiers’ regardless of the choice of option:

  • Qualifier 1 – Advertised speeds must be qualified with ‘up to’.
  • Qualifier 2 – Advertisements must include reference to factors likely to affect the actual speed received by consumers significantly.
  • Qualifier 3 – Advertisements must state that consumers can check the actual speed they are likely to receive at the point of sale.

We agree with these qualifiers and, like other responsible ISPs, already implement all of the above to our advertising. Entanet always advertises the speed of rate adaptive products as ‘up to’; always explains with a disclaimer that the actual speed achievable is dependent on the quality of the copper connection and the distance from the exchange; and provides an availability checker with expected speed information as the first part of its automated ordering process. Therefore we agree that these qualifiers should be adhered to by all ISPs.

With regards to the advertising of ‘unlimited’ packages the review proposes the following:

  • Option A – Maintaining the ASA’s present policy.
  • Option B – Development of the present policy to exclude FUPs that involve additional charges or suspension of service.
  • Option C – Development of the present policy to exclude FUPs that involve additional charges or suspension of service and customer specific severe traffic management.
  • Option D – The exclusion of services that include an FUP that restricts usage in any way.

As we have stated many times in the past (e.g. Entanet Opinion: Unlimited broadband: Fact or Fiction?) we don’t believe that truly ‘unlimited’ broadband packages can exist in the current broadband market. End users’ increasing consumption of bandwidth, coupled with demand for faster and faster speeds at peak times of the day, leads to increasing pressure on ISPs’ networks and rising costs requiring them to implement FUPs, capped services and/or traffic management.  Therefore we agree that something needs to be done to tackle the misleading advertising of ‘unlimited’ packages and we favour option D.

The Oxford dictionary defines ‘unlimited’ as “not limited or restricted in terms of number, quantity, or extent”; whilst dictionary.com defines it as “not limited; unrestricted; unconfined: unlimited trade, boundless; infinite; vast: the unlimited skies, without any qualification or exception; unconditional.”

We believe that option D satisfies this definition and therefore the public’s perception of an unlimited package most accurately. Entanet does not advertise any broadband packages as unlimited, clearly states the inclusive monthly bandwidth options available and describes all overuse charges. We believe that other ISPs should follow suit.

Why focus on speed and bandwidth?

So why are ISPs so obsessed with advertising their services based on speed and bandwidth allowances? Would they be better placed to promote their services based on factors such as the quality of support, reliability and uptime of their network, value added inclusive extras and the quality of the services provided? We think so.

The majority of ISPs provide very similar services when compared solely on speed for example. For this reason we encourage our reseller partners, especially those targeting business customers, to focus on other aspects of the service that differentiates them from the competition, for example high quality, 24/7 UK based technical support from experienced, knowledgeable and un-scripted operatives. As a reseller your USP is unlikely to be the speed of the connection because, let’s face it, you’re far from the only provider to deliver ‘up to 24Mbps’ services. Yet you may be the only one to offer a high quality personal service to your local area. It’s time to move away from an obsession with headline speeds, bargain basement prices and potentially misleading ‘unlimited’ claims and focus on the real differentiating factors that matter to customers.

If you are an Entanet reseller looking for tips and advice regarding promoting broadband services to your customers, contact your Entanet account manager on 0333 101 0000 for further guidance.

So to conclude, we agree that it’s time the potentially confusing practice of advertising based on headline speeds and claims of ‘unlimited’ services was reviewed. Unfortunately we don’t think the current options to tackle speed are workable and should be replaced by an option to support headline speeds with statistics indicating actual achievable speeds. Additionally, we think that only truly unlimited packages should be advertised as such and those that are subject to FUPs and traffic management should more clearly state their restrictions. However, overall we believe that to effectively promote broadband services resellers should move away from a focus on speed and bandwidth usage and discover their own USPs in order to truly differentiate themselves from their competitors.

Have your say!

What do you think about the current advertising practices of ISPs? Do you think the current regulations are sufficient or do you think they set customers expectations too high? Are you a reseller struggling to differentiate yourself within the market? Let us know your thoughts by leaving us a comment below.

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