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Advertising Standards tightens rules around broadband speed claims

ISPs will have to abide by a tighter set of rules that restrict the claims they are allowed to make about their broadband service speeds from May 2018

Internet service providers (ISPs) will be subjected to tighter rules around how they are allowed to advertise the speed of their broadband services when new rules handed down by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) come into force on 23 May 2018.

Numerical speed claims in broadband adverts will now have to be based on the download speed available to 50% of customers at peak times, and must be described as “average”. Under the current regulations, which date back to 2012, ISPs may advertise speeds available to 10% of customers and may describe those as “up to”.

However, in 2016, research commissioned on the ASA’s behalf showed many consumers were confused by the broadband speed claims made in adverts, with many expecting to receive a broadband service capable of delivering speeds close to what was claimed when this was very rarely the case due to a multitude of factors – such as the distance between one’s house and the nearest cabinet in the case of fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) services running on the Openreach network.

Following this, the ASA opened a consultation earlier in 2017 proposing a number of tweaks to the rules to make ISPs provide a slightly more balanced picture of what is on offer to residential customers and enable users to make more informed decisions.

The ASA said that it received virtually unanimous backing for some form of change to the previous standards in the responses to the consultation, which came from major ISPs, trade associations, consumer advocacy groups, think-tanks, and comms regulator Ofcom.

“There are a lot of factors that affect the broadband speed a customer is going to get in their own home – from technology to geography, to how a household uses broadband,” said Shahriar Coupal, ASA director of the committees of advertising practice.

“While we know these factors mean some people will get significantly slower speeds than others, when it comes to broadband ads, our new standards will give consumers a better understanding of the broadband speeds offered by different providers when deciding to switch providers.”

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The ASA has elected to use a single median (described for its purposes as average) peak time download speed as the new measure because it believes providing a range of speeds can be misinterpreted and does not tell users where in the range they may fall, while the term average is more readily understood and lets users make a more meaningful comparison.

Additionally, it was felt that using peak time as a measurement, rather than 24 hours, would give people a clearer picture of what speeds they were likely to receive when they were most likely to be using the internet.

Dan Howdle, consumer telecoms analyst at Cable.co.uk, said the changes would go a long way towards alleviating a persistent consumer gripe, and allow users to make a more informed choice when switching providers. “However, megabits continue to be an abstract number for the majority, and the industry still needs to work harder to promote greater understanding in how those numbers apply to everyday use,” he said.

Andrew Ferguson, editor at Thinkbroadband.com, cautioned that users should not expect to see change overnight, but eventually the variations between providers would become clearer.

However, he warned, this may mean that some ISPs might try to wiggle out of providing a service to customers likely to get speeds at the lower end of the scale, or try to push customers to a technically identical service marketed under a different name as a means to get around the changes.

“To give some idea of the scale of the changes for the partial fibre (FTTC) services currently sold as up to 38Mbps, we are expecting to see adverts featuring speeds in the 24 to 30Mbps region then up to 76Mbps services should be in the 45 to 55Mbps region,” said Ferguson. “The older ADSL2+ services generally sold as up to 17Mbps today will probably see adverts talking of 6 to 9Mbps.”

FTTC not misleading

Alongside its new rules governing broadband speed, the ASA has also announced the outcome of its review of the use of the word fibre in broadband advertising.

Many have claimed that the use of the term fibre to describe a fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) based broadband service, where the fibre element is the backhaul and the last mile to the consumer property is bridged with copper wiring, is misleading when compared to faster full fibre, or fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP), where fibre optic cable runs all the way into the premises.

The ASA commissioned new research that found that fibre was not a consumer priority when choosing a service, that consumers did not notice fibre claims in ads, and even if they did, tended to think it was just a buzzword to describe “fast” broadband. Additionally, the researchers found, consumers tended not to believe they would change their buying decision once the difference between FTTC and FTTP was explained to them.

The ASA’s decision not to address the difference between FTTC and FTTP has prompted a furious reaction from some of the UK’s largest pure fibre suppliers CityFibre, Gigaclear and Hyperoptic, which issued a joint statement condemning the decision and vowing to fight it.

The group described the decision as a “hugely damaging” one that “fundamentally undermines the battle to secure Britain’s digital future” and said it was clearly at odds with the government’s newfound enthusiasm for full fibre infrastructure.

“By allowing copper-reliant products to continue to masquerade as full-fibre, despite their clear and recognised inferiority in terms of speed and quality, consumers will continue to be ill-equipped to make an informed choice, fuelling mounting distrust in the telecoms market place,” argued the group.

Read more on Telecoms networks and broadband communications

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