Stephen Foley: The need for speed and some tough regulation on broadband promises

 

Outlook Broadband speeds are rising – hooray – but not as fast as the UK's internet service providers are claiming. The conclusion of the latest Ofcom report is that ISPs are telling bigger whoppers than ever about the speed of their connections. Their advertising is more BS than Mb/s, you might say.

The weasel words you should be looking out for in their ads are the words "up to". When Ofcom did its measurements in May, it found the average broadband speed was 6.8 megabytes per second (Mb/s), up 10 per cent from the regulator's last check in December. The average number claimed in ISPs' ads, though, had risen to 15 Mb/s.

Providers feel entitled to use an "up to" figure because connection speeds fluctuate so much, at least to homes that rely on copper wiring, which is three-quarters of the country. Short of moving your house to within a few feet of the exchange, you would be hard pressed to get the maximum speed promised. TalkTalk, for example, promises up to 24 Mb/s, yet delivers an average of only about one-third of that. BT's "up to 8 Mb/s" package gets you 4 Mb/s.

For some poor unfortunates, the difference between promise and delivery can be even more startling. Average download speed received from providers offering up to 20 Mb/s and 24 Mb/s ADSL services was 6.6Mb/s, while 37 per cent of the customers on these packages received average speeds of 4 Mb/s or less

The lesson is that on the UK's information superhighway, as on the highway, is check your speed. Most ISPs signed up to a code of conduct that stipulates they advertise a range of likely speeds, rather than a single "up to" figure, and then gives you the right to pull your business without penalty if you don't get the minimum speed promised. Good steps, but there has to be more. Specifically, the Advertising Standards Authority should be able to punish ISPs that play fast and loose with broadband speed claims. Its advisory bodies are due to publish guidelines sometime in the autumn.

In the meanwhile, Ofcom should keep naming and shaming offenders such as BT, TalkTalk and others. It is only through consumer pressure that ISPs will quickly invest in the upgrades to our digital infrastructure the UK needs, and that pressure will come only if consumers are fully up to speed.

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