Ofcom has set out new guidelines for ISPs, as the regulator published research showing the gap between advertised broadband speeds and real speeds is widening.
The regulator's revised Code of Practice, announced on Tuesday, calls for greater consistency and accuracy of information on the speeds available to end users. Ofcom will require ISPs to give their customers a range of achievable speeds, rather than the 'up to' maximum speed that is currently advertised.
Consumers will be able to leave their contracts without penalty if their maximum line speed is significantly below the bottom of their quoted range and the ISP is unable to solve the problem. The estimated maximum line speed must be given to the customer early in the sales process, as will clear written information detailing the ISP's fair usage and traffic management policies.
The Code of Practice is voluntary, but Ofcom says that all major ISPs have signed up.
According to Ofcom's research, carried out with broadband monitoring company SamKnows, the UK's average actual fixed-line residential broadband speed has increased by more than 25 percent over the past year from 4.1Mbps to 5.2Mbps. However, the average 'up to' speed that is advertised in the UK is 11.5Mbps.
The research suggests that Virgin Media's cable service delivers real speeds closest to those advertised: a claimed 10Mbps service delivers 8.7Mbps on average, while a 20Mbps service achieves an average 15.7Mbps in reality. Virgin's premium 'up to 50Mbps' service delivered around 36Mbps on average.
The picture is different for DSL connections, which are more common: services advertised at up to 8Mbps or 10Mbps delivered as little as 3.3Mbps on average, while claimed 20Mbps or 24Mbps services only managed an average of 6.5Mbps.
"Ofcom's research shows that average speeds have increased, which is good news, but there is scope for a further step change in the quality of the UK communications infrastructure," Ofcom chief Ed Richards said in a statement. "Actual speeds are often much lower than many of the advertised speeds, which makes it essential that consumers are given information which is as accurate as possible at the point of sale; this is what the new code is designed to deliver."
The regulator also said it had made recommendations to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Committee on Advertising Practice (CAP), both of which are currently reviewing the claims made by ISPs.
One recommendation is that speeds should only be advertised if "at least some" consumers can actually achieve the advertised speeds. This almost never occurs with the 'up to' speeds that are commonly advertised, thanks to factors including the number of people on the same part of the network and the distance between users and the exchange.
Another recommendation is that "those who advertise according to 'up to' speeds should also include a typical speed range (TSR) based on a standard currency to be developed, similar to those in other industries: for example, APR in financial services and MPG in motoring", according to the statement.
BT responded to Ofcom's survey and Code of Practice change by saying it already gave customers the most consistently accurate prediction of the speed specific to their line.
"We support Ofcom's code but want to go even further and are investing further in systems to make our predictions even better and to have them confirmed in writing," BT's consumer manager John Petter said in a statement. "We continue to invest heavily in our network, bringing speed improvements to customers nationwide. We give our customers comprehensive help and advice to get the best speed out of their line. For example, all BT Broadband customers can get the BT Broadband Accelerator, which can eliminate electrical interference, free of charge."
According to Matthew Howett, a senior analyst at Ovum, "marketing standards in the telecoms sector could be tightened".
"Consider likening 'up to' broadband speeds to claims of 'unlimited' data tariffs — rarely are they such," Howett said in a statement on Tuesday. "Being transparent will become a lot more important, particularly as ISPs look to manage their networks to deal with the increasing volume of traffic.
"However, for ISPs — particularly those using DSL — the problem can be outside of their control. The actual speed a consumer gets is dependent on many factors including congestion on the network and the distance they live from the exchange building. The only real long-term solution will be an upgrading of the physical infrastructure — ie, replacing the old copper with new fibre lines."