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Ofcom – Increased Broadband Speeds and ISP Voluntary Code of Practice

Big headliner from Ofcom this morning is that average broadband speeds in the UK have increased by over 25% in the past year. Research, conducted in partnership with broadband monitoring specialists SamKnows, has found that speeds have increased from 4.1Mbit/s to 5.2Mbit/s.

This is no surprise really as ISPs move their base from ADSLMax (“up to 8Meg”) over to ADSL2+ (“up to 24Meg”). It’s a shame that the average is not higher but that’s copper for you. The research showed that cable customers fare significantly better than ADSL.

The Ofcom data also reveals some very interesting stats about performance during peak times that don’t do some ISPs any favours. BT for example appears to be on average the worst performer when it comes to ADSL2+.

Interesting for me as a B2B ISP to note that the peak traffic times for consumer ISPs is 8-10pm compared with 1 – 5 pm for Timico. Our network is relatively empty after folk leave the office.

This is all good stuff, more of which can be found here.

The meat of today’s announcement really concerns the fact that consumers still aren’t getting the speeds they were expecting when they were sold the service.

In March of this year Ofcom published the results of some mystery shopping it commissioned to evaluate how ISPs were complying with the Voluntary Code of Practice on Broadband Speeds.

This code, implemented in December 2008, sets out how ISPs should inform consumers as to the speed they are likely to get out of a broadband connection before being sold that broadband connection. The Code was designed to prevent the all too prevalent situation of expectations regarding broadband speeds not being met.

The research shows that although ISPs now provide more information on broadband speeds that information is often not sufficient to allow consumers to have clear expectations about the service they sign-up to.

Of the total, 15% of the telephone mystery shoppers were not given an estimate of their access line speed (the maximum speed a consumer will be able to get), and 42% were only given one after prompting the sales agent near the end of the sales process.

In addition, consumers are not always being given a consistent and accurate estimate of their access line speed. In some cases, ISPs gave an access line speed double that of another ISP for the same broadband line and technology. The majority of access line speed estimates given to mystery shoppers did not match (within +/-1Mbit/s) the speeds given by the BT Wholesale line checker.

Moreover whilst under the Code consumers are notionally offered a lower speed package if their broadband line comes below their speed expectations, ISPs are increasingly reducing the number of packages they offer and the move to a lower speed offering is now often not possible.

Ofcom’s answer is to revise the Code and this revised Code of Practice is published today. There are a couple of comments worth making regarding this revised Code.

Firstly according to Ofcom it has been produced in conjunction with its existing signatories (mainly the large household names ISPs as the Code is not seen as relevant to business users). Okay.

Secondly this revised Code is more complicated than the original which makes me wonder about its usability and therefore effectiveness and indeed why the existing signatories agreed to it.

For example ISPs are now expected to offer their prospective customers a range (20th%ile to 80th%ile) of speeds that they might expect to see out their line. If the speed subsequently comes in below expectations ISPs have to be able to tell the customer how their worst 10% lines perform.

This adds to the complexity of the systems that ISPs will have to develop to support this Code. This is on top of the complexity created in the system by the Digital Economy Act!

Businesses need to spend their time making their lives simpler not more complex!!!

The reality is that for a given technology there is not going to be a massive difference between ISPs. Your choice is really copper or cable and copper has a much bigger footprint than cable.

The way forward I believe is for Ofcom to stop ISPs promoting the absolute max speeds they can (occasionally) provide and to concentrate on a simple “typical” range. Marketing departments won’t like this of course.

There will I’m sure be plenty of comparison sites publishing actual speeds obtained by customers of particular ISPs.  The public will be able to make its choice based on these comparisons and any other related parameter such as bundles of other services, quality of tech support, price etc.

I understand that some ISPs using O2/Be are also concerned that the Code suggests that customers unhappy with their line speed should be able to leave anytime within three months whilst the ISP’s own contract with Be has a minimum 3 month term. This would clearly leave an ISP out of pocket if customers were to exercise this right to leave. Be will have to change their Terms.

Ofcom still has the old version of the Code on its website – I’ll provide a link when the new one is available.

Trefor Davies

By Trefor Davies

Liver of life, father of four, CTO of, writer, poet,

5 replies on “Ofcom – Increased Broadband Speeds and ISP Voluntary Code of Practice”

Hi Tref

Definitely has been an interesting morning with these OFCOM reports. Glad it’s highlighted the discrepancy between advertised speeds and real world in the consumer sector.

Just to comment on your below point. All ISP’s working with BE Wholesale directly to obtain Annex M services are subject to 30 day terms, helping to alleviate the risk of mis-managed end user expectations. On all of our services we provide an estimate of likely speeds prior to signup, and have been (and always will be) working pro-actively with partners to help end users obtain the speeds they should be experiencing. In the event that this does not happen and all procedures have been exhausted, we’ve been happy to release the end user from their contract.

Hopefully that helps to clarify our stance. Of course there is a big difference between consumer practices and business (or even wholesale) practices. However the quicker we can filter procedures into the consumer world that we have been abiding too for a while, the better for all surely.

It’s very rare for anyone to get the full speed.

I got 5 Meg on an 8Meg bearer and 11Meg on 24Meg bearer – I live maybe a mile from the exchange.

There are two marketing related aspects to broadband that I get very animated about. The first is “unlimited usage” which is very rarely unlimited and carries a “fair usage policy”. This is a con that large ISPs with expensive legal teams have managed to get by the Advertising Standards Authority.

The second is broadband speeds and the “up to” get out clause. In the defense of ISPs it is actually not easy to get particularaly accurate speed data on a line before it has been provisioned. The market should chose a different way of describing the product that will create less confusion.

For information there is a speed versus distance chart on the Timico website here

I agree about the complexity, Tref. How many people understand percentiles, for example. OFCOM haven’t addressed the fact that three speeds define the performance of an ADSL line – ATM sync speed, TCP/IP throughput and useful data transfer. I have a vanilla ADSL line with 8128 sync, 7150 IP profile and it’ll speed test at 6700 or so when it’s quiet or as low as 1800 at heavy peak times. What speed should I disclose to the man on the Clapham Omnibus ?

Perhaps the speed indication should be restricted to the measurable throughput, as that is what the consumer can measure.

I don’t have any problem with selling rate adaptive services by their maximum speed as a) it is clear this is a variable depending on the line and b) the speed is indicated at the point of sale. Cable of course isn’t rate adaptive so different rules should apply.

“up to” is not really a get-out clause, it is an Advertising Standards requirement. They are currently reviewing their guidance, as far as I can tell they are doing it behind closed doors.

I don’t agree about giving a typical speed, how would that be defined. Thousands of customers get the full 8128 sync rate on MaxDSL and about the same number get over 6000 as get under 3000 which is at least consistent with the mean speeds reported. What’s typical ?

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