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Watchdog: TalkTalk's broadband speed test misled users

The UK advertising watchdog has ordered TalkTalk to change the presentation of its broadband speed-checking tool, as it had been misleading customers into thinking their connections were faster than in reality.
Written by David Meyer, Contributor on

The UK advertising watchdog has ordered TalkTalk to change the presentation of its broadband speed-checking tool, as it had been misleading customers into thinking their connections were faster than in reality.

In an adjudication published on Wednesday, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) said the ISP did not make it clear enough that customers would likely get lower speeds than those estimated by the speed checker, so "consumers would understand the information provided by the speed checker to be indicative of their likely actual throughput speeds".

"We told TalkTalk to ensure their speed checker results were more clearly qualified in future. We also told them to ensure they were in a position to provide evidence to substantiate the impression that was likely to be taken from their future advertising claims," the ASA said.

The ruling followed a complaint from a customer who, on 10 December, was told by the speed checker that his estimated speed was 3.8Mbps, with an estimated range between 2.1-5.3Mbps. However, the customer "had been informed that the maximum speed available to him was less than 2.1Mbps".

Code of practice

Most ISPs in the UK have signed up to a voluntary code of practice that obliges them to provide a clear and accessible speed checker that provides an explanation of the differences between the network-measured line speed and the actual throughput customers will get.

TalkTalk argued that its checker complied with these rules by drawing customers' attention to a "How do we estimate your speed?" link that opens up an explanatory popup window.

The ISP noted that it had followed the Ofcom-approved methodology for the speed test, namely a "statistical model of standard distribution" that limited results to those between the 20th and 80th percentiles.

We told TalkTalk to ensure their speed checker results were more clearly qualified in future.
– ASA

TalkTalk said there was a conflict with that methodology, as "certain customers would fall outside of the standard distribution and would achieve speeds that were either higher or lower than that estimated", the ASA recorded. However, the ISP also said it recognised that it could improve the qualifications in the pop-up and make the link more prominent.

"Although we acknowledged the ad made clear the speed quoted was an estimated one, we considered the text 'How do we estimate your speed?' was not sufficient to make clear that the throughput speeds consumers actually received were likely to vary and that, most of the time, they would be lower than the estimated access line speed range," the ASA said.

"We noted that some speed issues experienced by consumers could relate to their own particular circumstances and, to that end, the complainant's issue might be a customer service one, rather than an indication of the general reliability of the line checker," the watchdog added. "However, because we had not seen directly relevant evidence to support the impression that was likely to be taken from the ad — that the speed checker was indicative of the likely actual throughput speeds consumers would achieve in the majority of cases — we concluded that the ad breached the [advertising] Code."

Mystery shopping

Meanwhile, Ofcom said on Tuesday that TalkTalk and BT had agreed to amend their staff training and sales processes, after the regulator discovered the ISPs were less likely than others to inform potential customers of the real-world speeds they will get if they sign up.

In a mystery shopping exercise, BT and TalkTalk's sales reps were more likely than not to require prompting before detailing the speeds.

The code of conduct requires ISPs to volunteer this information as early as possible in the sales process.

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