Advertised "up-to" broadband speeds can be taken with a pinch of salt, but if Ofcom has its way, providers will soon have to play fair and tell customers how fast, or slow, their services really are.
The latest report from the telecoms watchdog found that broadband packages delivered average speeds of only 6.2Mbps (millions of bits per second) last November and December, despite promises of more than double this at 13.8Mbps. Ofcom is now pushing for a typical speeds range (TSR) to force providers to advertise the actual speeds achieved by at least half of the customers, as well as headline speeds.
"Broadband speeds have actually improved over the past few years, however, providers continue to overpromise on what they can deliver, which is leading to huge dissatisfaction," says Michael Phillips, a product director at Broadband choices.co.uk.
In the wake of Ofcom's findings, Plusnet has announced it will double its headline broadband speeds to up to 20Mbps for existing customers with immediate effect. But BT has criticised the TSR plans, arguing they could mislead customers as average performances will still depend on where people live, and could even lead to internet service providers (ISPs) ignoring less favourable customers. "Enforcing typical speed ranges is dangerous as it could encourage more ISPs to cherry-pick customers to increase their average, leaving customers in rural and suburban areas under-served.
"That would encourage digital exclusion rather than tackle it," says John Petter, the managing director of BT Retail's consumer business.
However, with Ofcom's research revealing that packages using BT's old copper-based ADSL network were only able to deliver speeds of 3Mbps, despite claims of up to 8Mbps, there is clearly a need for more accurate information. For packages flaunting up to 20 or 24Mbps, the disparity was greater with average download speeds of just 6.2Mbps, and only 3 per cent of customers enjoying speeds of more than 16Mbps.
But, it wasn't all bad news for consumers, as Virgin Media's fibre optic cable services managed to deliver between 90 and 96 per cent of the advertised speeds. The study also gave Ofcom the chance to test the new BT Infinity "fibre-to-the-cabinet" service for the first time, which performed much better than its ADSL services.
This new super-fast broadband, which uses fibre optic cables to street-side cabinets and then standard copper telephone line to customers' homes, is currently available to only 15 per cent of the population.
Average download speeds were 31.1Mbps, equating to only 78 per cent of the advertised speeds, but Ofcom did find that average upload speeds were significantly higher than any other service at around 8Mbps.
"It is encouraging that new technologies are being rolled out across the UK and faster speeds are being achieved," says Ofcom's chief executive, Ed Richards. "However, the research shows that ISPs need to do more to ensure they are giving customers clear and accurate information about their services and the factors that may affect the actual speeds customers will receive,"
As well as helping customers compare speeds more accurately, Ofcom has also recommended that the term "unlimited" in advertising should be restricted to services with no usage caps at all.
Many ISPs offer so-called unlimited packages but cap excessive downloading through a fair usage policy. This means that although providers usually let the occasional slip-up go, users who exceed this limit regularly may have restricted usage at peak time and limited access to peer-to-peer sites such as Channel 4's OD. At present, the only truly unlimited options are Virgin Media's XXL package and Sky's Unlimited package.
A new Code of Practice comes into effect in July 2011 compelling providers to allow customers with a proven history of poor speeds to cancel their contract without penalty within three months of signing up. At the moment, many providers levy an exit fee so those lumbered with a poor service can be locked into a contract for up to two years.
In the mean time, there are various ways to get more out of your current package at home and the first step is to test your speed using an online checker such as www.broadbandchoices.co.uk/speed-test.asp.
"Take a few readings on different days at different times and if you find you are consistently receiving an inferior service, take the results to your broadband provider and ask what they can do to improve the situation. They may be able to boost your service, or you may prefer to be put on to a cheaper package that reflects the speeds you are experiencing," says Mr Phillips.
Remember that some factors may be out of your control, for example, if your broadband is via a telephone line, as opposed to a Virgin cable, your download speed will ulti-mately depend on how far you live from the local exchange. However, you may also be able to make simple changes at home to improve your broadband speeds.
If you have a wireless connection, always secure the network with a password to prevent hackers using up bandwidth and slowing it down. Experts recommend using at least a WEP (wired equivalency privacy) password and if possible, a WPA (WiFi protected access) encryption.
Keeping your router clear of obstructions and away from other appliances which emit signals, such as a cordless phone, can also help. Microfilters should also be fitted on to all telephone sockets to prevent signals interfering with one another, while moving the modem closer to the faceplate (the socket the modem connects to) should improve quality and speed.
It may also be worthwhile upgrading your router to get a stronger signal, particularly if yours came free with your package.
You can also consider making improvements to your computer. Upgrading your internet browser and clearing its cache should boost your speed. As would turning off automatic applications such as Windows Update or Live Messenger so that they do not run unnoticed and slow things down. Even the time of day will affect broadband speeds so for heavy downloading stick to off-peak periods either late at night, or during the day, when fewer people are online.
Michael Phillips, Broadbandchoices.co.uk
"If you are still unhappy with your service and simply wish to switch to a different provider altogether, you may find you have to pay an exit fee. This can be pretty pricey but new Ofcom guidelines are coming into force from July 2011 which will lower the costs."