Internet service providers have been told they will have to prove that customers can actually surf the web at the "maximum speeds" they claim to offer in future as part of new guidelines issued by the government's advertising regulator.
But the guidelines only require the providers (ISPs) to prove that 10 per cent of their customers can achieve the speeds they advertise, leading consumer groups to accuse the regulator of not going far enough. The Communications Consumer Panel called the guidelines "extremely unsatisfactory".
A spokesman for the Panel, which had already told ISPs that they must stop using misleading 'up to' speeds in their adverts, said: "Consumers are still unable to make an informed choice of which ISP gives them the best internet speeds overall if only 10 per cent of a provider's customers get the maximum advertised speed."
A Help Note, published today by the Committees of Advertising Practice, a sister-organisation of the Advertising Standards Agency and responsible for writing the government's Advertising Codes, states that broadband companies should also include "appropriate, additional information to accompany a maximum speed claim to ensure the average consumer is not misled. Where relevant, this includes information that bears out that a significant proportion of subscribers receive a speed that falls considerably short of what consumers might reasonably expect the service to offer".
The updated guidelines come six months after an Ofcom study found that average download speeds were "less than half of 'up to' speeds" advertised by some Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The research, published in March, showed that the average broadband speed increased by 1Mbit/s between May and December 2010 but was only 45 per cent of the average advertised broadband speed of 13.8Mbit/s.
Chairman of CAP James Best said: "This new guidance directly responds to consumer concerns by setting an appropriately high bar for advertisers who want to make speed and 'unlimited' claims in ads. Advertising is only effective if consumers trust the messages they see and hear. This guidance will help deliver that."
Secretary of CAP, Shahriar Coupal said: "The industry has put a lot of work into producing this guidance which significantly tightens the position on how these products and services may be advertised. We urge marketers to get to grips with the Help Notes and to ensure their future ad campaigns are in line with it."
The guidance also says that broadband and telephony services should not be described as "unlimited" if users are charged or have their service suspended for exceeding certain thresholds. A CAP statement read: "Broadband providers may still manage traffic on their services, but if it affects users unduly, that too will likely render an 'unlimited' claim misleading." The new guidance will take effect in April 2012.