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ISP code targets broadband speed confusion

Ofcom's voluntary code of practice should see broadband providers become more realistic about access speeds when customers sign up
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Ofcom has published a voluntary code of practice for internet service providers, in the hope it will help consumers get accurate and honest details on their broadband speeds.

The code already has the support of 33 ISPs, representing more than 90 percent of the market. Announced on Thursday, the code follows widespread consumer outrage at real speeds being lower than those advertised. It does not apply to dedicated business broadband products, but will affect many small businesses that use consumer or home-work packages.

The thrust of the code lies in getting ISPs to give customers — at the point of sale — an accurate estimate of the maximum speed they can get, based on the "data connection between the broadband modem and the local exchange or cable head end", Ofcom said. Sales and promotion staff must also be properly trained so they fully understand what they are selling.

Technical issues that hold back speeds must be resolved where possible, and customers must be offered a cheaper, lower-speed package where higher estimates are inaccurate or unattainable. Consumers must also be given information on usage limits, and should ideally be swiftly warned when they are approaching those limits, according to the code.

The publication of the code has drawn swift responses — generally positive — from many in the industry. The Consumer Panel, which advises Ofcom and has vocally lobbied on the broadband speed issue, said strict monitoring of ISPs that had signed up would be "key to ensuring [the code's] success across industry and improving the situation for consumers".

"We are delighted to see that Ofcom will be carrying out mystery shopping exercises and we will be looking carefully at the results," the panel's chairperson, Anna Bradley, said in a statement. "If they show that ISPs are not in compliance, it will clearly be time to call for a mandatory code of practice."

Mike Fairman, head of O2 Broadband, said he believes "it is every customer's right to know exactly what broadband speed they will actually get". Although the estimated access line speed is a useful starting point, he said the real test will be an independent 'throughput' test that measures how each ISP performs in practice. "O2 is keen to work with Ofcom in establishing an independent throughput speed test which will demonstrate the significant investment O2 has made in its broadband network capacity".

Rob Barnes, head of broadband and mobiles at moneysupermarket.com, said the code, if adhered to, would give customers "a more comprehensive sales service, with more detailed specification as a matter of course, rather than a salesman flogging a product that could get him the highest commission".

The broadband monitoring company Epitiro said in a statement that the code was welcome, but pointed out that speed was not the only issue for users. "For example, reliability of the connection is important," the statement read. "Many would say it's more frustrating not to have a connection than to have a slow connection."

Ofcom has made it clear that the code is a work in progress, and further research may result in changes to the code. One area being looked into is the question of whether the code should be applied to mobile broadband as well as fixed-line access, as the disparity between advertised and achieved speeds is also an issue in that market. Depending on the regulator's ongoing work, a separate code may be developed for mobile broadband.

The Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) said in a statement on Thursday that it welcomed the code, but would like to see it "extended to include wireless mobile operators that provide broadband over their networks as well as fixed-line broadband providers, to ensure minimal confusion to consumers".

Those ISPs that have signed up to the code have six months to become compliant.

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