Ofcom calls for changes to broadband speed advertising

The regulator, which also published the latest average UK broadband speeds, has said marketing should include real-world typical speed ranges, rather than only quoting theoretical maximums

Broadband services should be advertised quoting typical speed ranges rather than only 'up-to' maximums, Ofcom has said, as it published its latest study into average UK connectivity speeds.

On Wednesday, the regulator said the average UK broadband speed was 6.2Mbps, whereas the average advertised speed is 13.8Mbps. Cable and fibre speeds turned out to be closer to those advertised, when compared with copper-based connections.

Broadband speed averages

Broadband-speed advertising should include real-world performance, as shown in Ofcom's study of the big ISPs' networks. Credit: Ofcom

Last year's study, also carried out with broadband performance specialists SamKnows, found an average real-world speed of 4.1Mbps, at a time when the average advertised top speed was 7.1Mbps. Some of the year-on-year increase is down to a change in the methodology of the studies, Ofcom noted.

"It is encouraging that new technologies are being rolled out across the UK and faster speeds are being achieved," Ofcom chief Ed Richards said in a statement. "However, the research shows that ISPs need to do more to ensure they are giving customers clear and accurate information about the services they provide and the factors that may affect the actual speeds customers will receive.

"It is important that the rules around broadband advertising change so that consumers are able to make more informed decisions based on the adverts they see, and that advertisers are able to communicate more clearly how their products compare to others in the market."

The results came through as Ofcom submitted its response (PDF) to a consultation into the broadband-speed marketing issue, being carried out by advertising regulators the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP). That consultation was requested by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in June 2010 and was launched in January this year.

Using the 'up-to' descriptor in combination with a typical speed or speed range is also unacceptable. Consumers are likely to see the two descriptors as contradictory, which could lead to further confusion and scepticism.

– Communications Consumer Panel (CAP)

Ofcom's recommendations include the use in marketing of a typical speeds range (TSR), rather than just a theoretical maximum that few, if any, customers will ever achieve, due to issues such as line contention and distance from the exchange. According to the regulator, the TSR should be "actually achieved by at least half of customers".

"If a maximum 'up-to' speed is used in an advert, then the TSR must have at least equal prominence. The theoretical maximum 'up-to' speed stated must also be a speed actually achievable by a material number of customers," Ofcom said.

It added that any reference to "fast", "super-fast" or "lightning" speeds will have to be accompanied by a TSR "which should have at least equal prominence to these words".

Ofcom's proposals differ markedly from those of the Communications Consumer Panel (CCP) — an independent group set up to advise the regulator — which made its own submission (PDF) to the consultation on 25 February. The CCP wants all 'up-to' marketing to be banned because that phrase is no longer "credible or sustainable" and is causing "widespread scepticism" amongst consumers.

"Using the 'up-to' descriptor in combination with a typical speed or speed range is also unacceptable," the CCP warned. "Such combined information does not pass the 'simple' test; consumers are likely to see the two descriptors as contradictory, which could lead to further confusion and scepticism."

The consumer group Which? made another submission (PDF) to the consultation on 28 February, hewing closer to Ofcom's position. The group also called for advertisements to quote TSRs, but added it was strongly in favour of retaining the 'up-to' phrase. However, it suggested that quoted maximum speeds must be achievable by at least 10 percent of customers.

According to Ovum analyst Matthew Howett, telecoms marketing standards are generally poor. He said that transparency will become increasingly important, particularly as ISPs look to manage their networks to deal with the increasing volume of traffic and the ongoing net-neutrality debate.

"The only long-term solution to this problem will be an upgrading of the physical infrastructure, ie replacing the old copper with new fibre lines, and this is where being more honest with broadband speeds could be to the advantage of ISPs," Howett said in a statement. "If consumers see that with a super-fast broadband package over a fibre line will offer a speed much closer to what is theoretically achievable, it could help with the migration of consumers to these next-generation networks."

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