The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has upheld a complaint against NTL for calling its 128Kbps Internet access service a "high-speed broadband product" -- a ruling that has left the cable firm furious.
The ASA announced on Wednesday that NTL was wrong to use the word broadband, without qualification, to describe the 128Kbps product because -- according to the ASA -- most consumers would think that broadband means a service of 500Kbps or faster.
In future, the ASA wants NTL -- and any other company that offers an always-on Internet access product of less than 500Kbps -- to include a prominent reference to the speed of the service in the advertisement.
"If you are offering a broadband service at less than 500Kbps then you need to make that clear in your advertising," an ASA spokeswoman told ZDNet UK. "If you just call it 'high-speed broadband' then consumers will take this to mean a service of at least 500Kbps," she added.
NTL, which is looking into ways of overturning this ruling, is highly critical of the ASA's reasoning.
"For a company to have to base its advertising on what it thinks the ASA thinks consumers think, rather than on a technical definition from an industry body like Oftel, is just wrong," an NTL spokesman said.
In its defence, NTL had shown that Oftel defines broadband as "higher bandwidth, always-on services, offering data rates of 128Kbps and above."
The majority of broadband connections in the UK are 512Kbps or faster. The consumer ADSL service offered by BT Wholesale and resold by ISPs is 512Kbps. NTL also sells a 600Kbps and a 1Mbps broadband service, while Telewest offers a 512Kbps and a 1Mbps service.
NTL also recently raised the speed of this 128Kbps product to 150Kbps.
By basing its ruling on what it believes consumers understand broadband to be, rather than on Oftel's definition, the ASA may force other telcos to change the marketing of their products.
BT is set to launch a 256Kbps Internet access product later this year, but so far the telco has only described the forthcoming services as a "consumer ADSL service" rather than a broadband one.
The ruling also brings further controversy to the ongoing debate over exactly what can be called broadband.
It was reported last month that the government has changed its definition of broadband to "a generic term describing a range of technologies operating at various data transfer speeds," a move slammed in some quarters as meaning that anything marketed as broadband counted as broadband in official eyes.
Speaking at the Oxford Internet Institute last month, Dr David Clark, senior research scientist at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science, defined broadband in a way that does not restrict itself to set speeds.
"A broadband service is one where the speed of your local access link isn't the limiting factor in your use of the Internet, and one which is fast enough to encourage the development of new applications," explained Dr Clark.
Oftel explained that its definition, which is uses to measure broadband take-up, was chosen because other countries also define broadband as 128Kbps or faster. This makes international comparisons of broadband take-up more accurate.