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Update: how do broadband providers get away with ‘up to’ speed advertising?

broadband line

Imagine walking into a pub this weekend ordering a pint and the barman saying he’ll pour you ‘up to’ a full pint. Or buying train tickets from London to Newcastle – that might only take you to York or Doncaster.

Or your boss telling you that this month she’ll pay you up to 10% of your normal salary. OK… well, you get the picture.

It sounds crazy of course but actually this is the kind of experience most of us face with our broadband – we’re all living in ‘up to’ land.

What our new research reveals about broadband speeds

Our latest research reveals the full extent of the problem – a whopping 15.4 million UK homes are putting up with speeds that don’t actually match those they were initially promised.

So 74% of households with fixed broadband connections are paying for packages with advertised speeds they don’t get. It gets worse when you move out of cities. Astonishingly, 98% of rural homes typically don’t get the headline advertised speed.

For example, we found that only 4% of customers on TalkTalk’s 17Mbps package, and just 1% of people on BT and Plusnet’s 76Mbps deals, are getting the top advertised speeds.

We know speed matters. Nine in 10 of you have told us it’s an important factor in how you choose your broadband provider. It’s also how providers describe and categorise their own services. But guidelines state that advertised ‘up-to’ speeds only need to be available to 10% of customers. Only 10%!

Your experiences of ‘up to’ broadband speeds

Many of you have shared your frustrations about slow broadband speeds. For example, Julia Ortmans told us:

‘Our broadband speed in North Norfolk is about 1.5Mbps. Sometimes slower – if you can imagine. It’s like living in a third world country that has just introduced computers. Occasionally if I am up at 3am it gets to nearly 2Mbps.’

And Bert said:

‘We live in the ‘sticks’ and have been totally forgotten by all providers. Hopeless and yet they still charge us for full speed.’

What we want to see

Last week we reported on how Ofcom planned to make it easier for you to switch your broadband provider if you’re not getting the speed advertised on your contract. We welcome this, but we also want the rules changed so that providers are only allowed to advertise speeds the majority of their customers can receive.

Help us increase the pressure by sending a message to advertising watchdogs – tell them what you think about misleading speed claims in broadband ads.

Have you chosen a broadband package based on an advertised speed – then found you can’t achieve it?


[UPDATE 15 APRIL 2016] – Culture minister Ed Vaizey has said that broadband speed advertising rules are a ‘complete and utter joke’.

Ed Vaizey told the House of Commons culture, media and sport select committee:

‘It’s ridiculous. The idea that if you can deliver to 10% of houses the broadband speeds you are advertising on a large billboard and get away with it seems to be a complete and utter joke, and I have told that to [the ASA’s] face.

‘It is good to have independent regulators. But I also feel as a politician and minister in this space I want to have the opportunity to express my frustrations. I am frustrated.

‘The way broadband speeds are advertised are misleading and I’d like to see them changed. I’ve made my views clear and the ASA will be aware of my concerns.’

Comments
Member

In London I have one gigabit broadband (downstream and upstream) via fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP). My case should be the norm and not the exception. The UK needs to move away from archaic copper cables (which includes FTTC or fibre-to-the-cabinet) so that FTTP becomes universal. This has already happened in countries like South Korea. Why should the UK remain in the slow lane?

http://www.speedtest.net/my-result/4188474648
http://www.speedtest.net/my-result/4188485494

Member

Richard, just to clarify the facts behind your introduction:
“15.4 million UK homes are putting up with speeds that don’t actually match those they were initially promised.” By “promised” do you mean when they asked for the speed they would get if they signed up they then did not get that speed?
If an advertisement says “up to” does that mean, to you, that everyone should expect that speed? Or 70% of people? Or 50%?. To me its only use to a potential subscriber is that it simply sets an upper limit.
If you give a potential broadband provider your telephone number then you should expect a good estimate of the speed you are likely to get. Rather than taking a negative stance on how poor things are would it not be more constructive to tell people (those who don’t already know) how to check what speed they can expect when choosing a provider?

Member

Malcolm, you talk a lot of sense.

Do any ISPs actually promise speeds? I have been with 4 ISPs at my current address and they have advised I won’t get a great speed because of the distance to the exchange but should be able to get 4.5Mbps. On several occasions when the speed has dropped, they have worked with me to try and improve it. I have never switched ISP just to get a better speed as there is no point. But I can honestly say no ISP has conned me into a contract that is unattainable.

ISPs are mainly dependent on the BT infrastructure and you can’t get blood out of a stone.

“Up to” depends on so many things and Which? would do better lobbying for BT to improve the infrastructure and advising people how to get the most from their slow speed not just backing weak directives from Ofcom.

Member

Hi Malcolm, thanks for your comment. There are two issues here. One is the interaction you have with your provider when taking out a contract. This is why our campaign last year resulted in changes to Ofcom’s code of practice – requiring providers to give individual customers more information about the speed they can expect to receive, and giving people stronger rights to leave their contract penalty free if the speed they receive fall below that reasonable level.

And then there’s how speeds are advertised more generally. If a handful of customers can receive a speed of 150Mbps, does that mean a provider can advertise with [small letters] “up to” and then [big headline] 150Mbps? We think that the headline speed should be available to the majority of customers if a provider uses it in advertising. That gives all consumers a clearer indication of what speed that provider’s package offers, before they engage in the purchasing process. We’re not calling for all customers to get the maximum speed advertised, but for broadband ads to be more realistic.

Yes, it’s a good idea to contact all providers to get an estimated speed, but many find that the way the speed is presented influences their decision of which provider to engage with. Hence the importance of challenging advertising rules to make sure that they are fit for purpose and give consumers a realistic picture of what they can expect. We don’t think the current guidelines do this, so we’re asking for them to be reviewed.

Member

Patrick, I understand that. However, what headline speed do you advertise? It will never match everyone’s achieved speed, will it. So it seems to me a pretty useless concept to pursue. If I know my provider is limited to 16 Mbps (on copper for example) but am told how to find out what I am likely to get then I will have useful information.

If you simply want to knock the way the advert is done – like EU fuel consumption – then that is fine by me. But put something constructive in its place. What I strongly dislike is the inference in your campaign that 15.4 million people have all been misled into getting an unachievable speed. Which? are simply sinking to the same level as the advertisers we seek to constrain.

I’m probably a lone voice, but I would like Which? to adopt objective fact-based actions and stop treating consumers as non-critical observers who can be marshalled into a campaign by stretching the truth. As well as having consumer support you also need to be seen by commerce, industry and others as a fair-minded consumer champion to retain their respect.:-(

Member

All marketing needs to be honest to decide which companies to shortlist when choosing a broadband service. I’m grateful for the efforts of Which? but disappointed that Ofcom and ASA have not done more.

Maybe ‘up to’ still has a place in the context of broadband. The service providers could be told that they have ‘up to six months’ to accede to the proposals made by Which? These seem reasonable and fair to me.

Member

Malcolm – My last comment was related to Patrick’s post.

You ask what headline speed speed should be advertised. Most consumers will be looking for a service that meets their current or future needs, which might be being able to use iPlayer, YouView or use games consoles, and both speed and infrequent disruption of service are important. It is the minimum speed that is the vital information and anything above this is a bonus.

As well as the minimum speed, you could give some breakdown of what service users achieve but the least helpful information is the maximum possible speed.

Member

wavechange, as you will see from my comment I have no disagreement here. The point I was making – where I am concerned- is Which?’s inflammatory approach. I do not see it as a necessary or a good way for a responsible organisation to enlist support for a campaign. I want positive proposals, not negative company bashing.

You say “All marketing needs to be honest”. Of course it does, and “up to” is honest, just not very helpful. Is this campaign honest? I think Which? is using the same marketing tactics that we criticise elsewhere. So honest? Economical with the facts perhaps to help persuade us.

As you will note I have been critical in the past of Which?’s approach to a few consumer issues. I am not one who thinks everything Which? does is above criticism and will continue to voice a view when I think it has crossed a line. But maybe my concept of what Which? (Consumers Association) job should be, and its approach, is outmoded. It certainly seems more populist to knock commercial organisations at any opportunity.