One asterisk can ruin your whole day

When broadband providers offer packages that you think look to good to be true, you're rarely disappointed.

When broadband providers offer packages that you think look to good to be true, you're rarely disappointed.

So there I was, driving along Melbourne's South-East Freeway when it loomed ahead of me, larger than life: Internet service provider TPG Internet is offering a AU$69.95 ADSL2+ Super broadband package that allows 150 gigabytes a month of downloads.

As anybody who follows these kinds of things knows, that's several times the maximum that most ISPs offer. I'm sure that deal has had more than a few eager motorists nearly driving off the road in their haste to write down TPG's phone number.

There is, of course, a catch: 110GB of that limit must be used in the wee hours between 1am and 7am -- in other words, when most of us are asleep. Perhaps my imagination is limited, but the only possible thing that your average punter will do with that much bandwidth is set up about a dozen BitTorrent downloads before going to bed, then snooze away happily while their TPG service clogs up their hard drive with gigabytes' worth of poor-quality latest releases.

It would have to be a lot of latest releases indeed: by my maths, downloading 110GB in 180 hours (six hours a day times 30 days a month) would require a continuous data flow of 611 megabytes per hour, 10MB per minute, or 169 kilobytes per second. For those of us used to thinking in megabits per second, that's around 1.5Mbps of continuous bandwidth consumption, full to the brim.

Odds are that most people will run out of movies they want to download far before they get anywhere near to generating this kind of traffic, which leads me to the point of this blog: so much of marketing is an absolute myth. TPG may well offer a great service, and it may well be possible to download 110GB of data in the time allotted -- but in reality, the number 150 is nothing more than an arbitrary figure which bears little reflection to most people's actual usage habits.

So, marketers are stretching reality a bit to sell their product, you say. The sky is blue, the winter dreary, and Nicole Ritchie is so desperate to outdo Paris Hilton that she'll even try for a longer jail sentence. What's new?

Before you click away shrugging, I'd like to draw your attention to exhibit two: Dodo Internet. Also keen to cash in on the ADSL2+ fad, Dodo Internet recently launched its own ADSL2+ service, for "free". .

Presuming for a moment that your average punter has any idea what the hell ADSL2+ is, anyway, this sounds like a great deal for the average punter. Until, that is, you read the fine print -- which is a disaster for anybody considering doing pretty much anything online at all.

The fine print -- which is there to see for those that have rightly learned to be sceptical of telcos bearing gifts -- points out that while you can get speeds of up to 24Mbps using ADSL2+, Dodo has set up the 'free' plan so you get just 150MB of data before you start paying for it -- at AU$0.18 per megabyte.

Downloading 150GB of data -- for which TPG will charge you AU$69.95 -- would cost you AU$26,973.00 with Dodo. Of course, Dodo recognises this is far too much for the average punter, so it limits the price of its 'free' ADSL2+ service to just AU$29.95 per month.

Reaching that amount will require downloading just 166.38 additional MB of data, or 316.38MB if you include the 'free' 150MB. At the theoretical maximum speed offered by ADSL2+, 24Mbps, you can hit that ceiling in approximately 105.46 seconds; at more likely speeds of 1.5Mbps, you will get 1687.36 seconds (28 minutes) of 'free' ADSL2+ joy.

After this point, your shiny new 24Mbps ADSL2+ connection will be cut to 64Kbps -- about the speed of a 1996-era ISDN connection -- and you will cry profusely while beating your fists on the table and wondering why you didn't read the fine print before committing yourself to paying AU$29.95 a month for a 64Kbps Internet connection for the next two years.

Before you argue that nobody would fall for this, consider a news release I received this week, which said that since launching the free ADSL2+ deal Dodo's sales "have dramatically increased".

I am not the first one to point out how deceptive the Dodo plan is, and of course caveat emptor applies as with all things. However, I think comparing Dodo's approach to Internet marketing with TPG's highlights just how hard it is to get a realistic expectation of what broadband really entails. Telstra spent most of the early part of this decade starving the country of decent speeds as it promoted ISDN over ADSL; even now, prevailing wisdom is that we are supposed to accept that we should be thankful for services with speeds as low as 256Kbps.

If you are comfortable with this, make sure you never visit Singapore, where last December local ISP StarHub began marketing 100Mbps Internet connections with no usage caps for a maximum of S$121.80 (AU$91.44 by current exchange rates). Of course, to get that service you must live in Singapore -- but every silver lining has its grey cloud.

No wonder Australia's broadband is still failing to live up to that available in cutting-edge telecoms markets like Poland and Mexico. While we're down here trying to make sense of the ISPs' marketing-speak, the rest of the world is just getting on with doing the job.

Hiding ridiculous or unrealistic terms of service behind a little asterisk, then blaming consumers for not understanding the deception to which they have succumbed, may not be illegal under Trade Practices Act legislation (although I would welcome opinions from legal types out there). However, it hardly seems like the kind of discourse that's going to improve things on the whole.

Perhaps some full disclosure, paired with honest and consumer-friendly advertising, would be a good start -- so people can understand exactly why their broadband is so utterly sub par.