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The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has called for action to address how internet service providers (ISPs) advertise broadband speeds, after research suggested consumers have a poor understanding of average speed, range speed and minimum speed claims.
Earlier in 2016, the ASA cracked down on misleading costs in advertising, meaning ISPs had to become more upfront about how they present the pricing structure of their various broadband packages.
Now, the ASA has turned its attention to whether or not the regulatory standards it enforces, which are set by the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP), are fit for purpose in protecting the general public from misleading claims about broadband speed.
With support from researchers GfK, the ASA conducted in-depth studies of consumers around the UK. It found that while speed was an important factor in how consumers choose between ISPs, levels of knowledge and understanding varied and were low overall, with many people not knowing what speeds they need to carry out various online tasks.
While most people understood that the higher the speed quoted in the advert, the higher the speed of the service, many remained unclear on what that meant in practice, what speed they would actually achieve and what packages would be most suitable for them. For example, parents of teenaged children streaming video to multiple devices will need a faster connection than a pensioner who only uses email.
Despite this uncertainty, the research revealed that the majority of consumers believed they were likely to receive a speed at or close to the headline speed claim, when in most cases that was extremely unlikely to be the case due to a range of factors – for example, distance from the fibre cabinet.
According to comparison site thinkbroadband.com, fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) services that are usually advertised as providing speeds of up to 38Mbps tend to provide an average of 28Mbps, and the disparity on older asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL) services is even greater.
The ASA’s chief executive Guy Parker said these findings underpinned the agency’s call for changes in how broadband speed claims are advertised to ensure people were not misled, and the decision by CAP, announced 17 November 2016, to review its guidance to advertisers.
“Making sure ads don’t mislead is at the heart of what we do. We’ve taken action this year to tackle confusing broadband pricing, to the benefit of consumers. Our research indicates that speed claims in ads contribute to consumers’ expectations of the broadband speeds they’ll receive, but their expectations are not being met. That needs to change,” said Parker.
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CAP director Shahriar Coupal added: “The research provides good insights into consumers’ understanding of broadband speed claims, but it doesn’t identify an obvious alternative way to communicate speeds that would be suitable to everybody’s needs. It also tells us that consumers believe that advertising can only do so much, which underpins the importance of detailed broadband speed information being provided elsewhere.
“CAP will take these findings and other information into account in its review of the guidance to ensure that broadband providers aren’t over-promising on their speed claims,” he said.
Addressing broadband speed confusion
Thinkbroadband’s co-founder, Sebastian Lahtinen, said regulating broadband advertising was a tough job because the mix of technologies and the state of the UK’s infrastructure means it is essentially impossible to deliver one, consistent message that was accurate for everybody. Zeroing in on a single metric – whatever that might be – didn’t really enable users to make the most informed decisions, he added.
“While many will argue that an average speed should be used, this is no more accurate than any other figure and it may lead some consumers to not consider broadband options, which for them might be most appropriate,” said Lahtinen.
“It is therefore important that consumers understand the need to ask broadband providers for a personalised estimate of the speeds they are likely to get.
“We would encourage the Advertising Standards Authority to focus on that message, rather than trying to set a single percentile figure, which will not improve consumer understanding,” he added.
Lahtinen suggested that the ASA consider making ISPs display a prominent feature on their website that provides an estimate of speeds available without requiring registration or opting into marketing emails, and to encourage consumers to seek out personalised estimates before choosing a broadband provider.
Ewan Taylor-Gibson, telecoms analyst at uSwitch, backed Lahtinen’s call for information about speeds to be more readily available: “For now, providers only disclose their estimated average and minimum speeds once you approach them directly, which can make it unnecessarily difficult to compare options.
“Having the estimated speeds providers can deliver to your home displayed during the comparison process – something that is not currently supported by all providers – could be an effective way to address confusion around broadband speeds,” he said.