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Last year we discussed the campaign being led by ‘Which?’ demanding guaranteed broadband speeds and slating a number of the larger ISPs for not delivering what their headline advertised speeds promised. Unfortunately, whilst we ISP types are well aware that it’s simply not that easy to ‘guarantee’ broadband speeds, Which? has reignited its campaign and whilst its intentions are good, the demands simply aren’t feasible.

Based on a recent report from Ofcom which sampled approx. 2000 connections Which? has used the findings to further promote its campaign to convince the ASA to change the current advertising guidelines governing broadband speeds. Currently, ISPs are required to advertise headline speed claims based on actual speeds achieved by at least 10% of their customer base. Which? argues that this recent survey shows ISPs are not conforming to these guidelines, which the ISPs dispute. It is also demanding a tougher ‘majority’ based calculation, wants providers to back up arguably generic statements such as ‘superfast’ with actual speed information and requests a crackdown by regulators on confusing adverts.

Richard Lloyd, Which? Executive Director, said “It’s not good enough that millions of homes are so poorly served by their broadband provider with speeds that just don’t live up to what was advertised. Broadband is an essential part of life these days so people shouldn’t be persuaded to buy a package which is never going to live up to expectations. We’ve raised our concerns with the advertising authorities, but we now want Ofcom to ensure consumers get the speeds promised by providers.”

Sounds reasonable?

The problem is, Which?’s latest claims are based on a very small sample, just 2000 connections across all ISPs. This represents just 0.008% of the UK’s fixed residential and SME broadband connections – 22.6 million according to Ofcom’s ‘Communications Market Report August 2014‘. So where it claims that only 4% of TalkTalk customers (for example) are receiving the advertised up to 17Mbps speed, it means 4% of the sample. That doesn’t equate to 4% of TalkTalk’s entire customer database, demonstrating that the Which? statistic based claims are fundamentally flawed. At the end of the day, only the actual provider knows (and should be able to prove to the ASA if required) that their speed claims are accurate and comply with the 10% rule.

Whilst we applaud Which?’s efforts to make broadband speed information clearer to consumers we don’t agree this is the best approach. Changing the 10% to ‘majority’ will not solve the issue of some customers not receiving the headline speeds. It will, at best, strive to reduce the number of consumers affected, with those that are left still remaining confused.

Instead, we believe consumers should be encouraged to pay more attention to the speed estimation information that is (usually) provided to them as part of the sign up/availability check stage. We believe a campaign to educate consumers to the importance of this information as opposed to the headline advertising information would be a more beneficial approach. ISPs are always going to ‘promote’ the best speeds possible to make them look more competitive within the market – that is simply the nature of advertising, but more customer specific information is available before signup. Any ISP worth its salt will not sensibly ‘promise’ broadband speeds as Richard Lloyd suggests.

Additionally, consumers should be made more aware of the vast amount of factors that can affect their actual broadband speed – many of which their ISP has absolutely no control over e.g. internal wiring, electrical interference etc.

Early contract exits  

In its previous campaign ‘suggestions’, Which? requested that consumers that are unable to achieve the estimated speeds provided should be allowed to exit from their contracts without penalty.  In Ofcom’s 2015 voluntary broadband speed code update this request appears to have been granted. Customers who experience speeds below the ‘Minimum Guaranteed Access Line Speed’ (MGALS) are now able to exit their broadband contracts at any time without penalty, previously this only applied to the first 3 months of the contract. The MGALS is described as the speeds achieved by the slowest 10% of the ISPs customers.

Whilst this also seems like a worthwhile improvement, the actual benefit of switching providers in this situation depends on the root of their connectivity problem. If the problem lies simply with a lack of capacity on the provider’s network for example, then switching to an alternative ISP will help. However if the root of the problem lies within the infrastructure being used (i.e. the quality of the copper) or the location of the customer (i.e. distance from the exchange) then switching to an alternative ISP is unlikely to help at all as the majority of ISPs that these new rules apply to use the underlying Openreach network.

Again, our advice is to pay specific attention to the speed estimation information provided at the point of sign up and, if the actual experience achieved falls significantly short, work alongside the provider to ensure engineers investigate and hopefully resolve the issue for the customer as efficiently as possible.

With regards to advertising speed information we believe providers should be as realistic as possible whilst remaining competitive – a fine balancing act. To help our own resellers we provide a useful ASA compliance report that helps our resellers to identify their 10% customer base speeds for advertising in compliance with the ASA guidelines.

We believe that if you provide realistic estimates up front and explain the potential limitations to your customers from the start, you can effectively manage your customers’ expectations and avoid dissatisfaction and complaints further down the road. Education is key!

Have your say!

Do you think advertised speeds should be based on the performance of ‘most’ customers or do you think the current 10% rule is sufficient? Do you think educating consumers to the importance of the speed estimations is more beneficial? Let us know your thoughts and share your experiences by leaving us a comment below.

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