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Ofcom Finally Addresses “Up To” Broadband Nonsense, But Fails to Implement Minimum Speeds

by David Mercer | 3月 03, 2011

The UK’s telecoms regulator, Ofcom, has announced the results of its latest survey of broadband speeds. But it has again failed to recommend the main policy which would help consumers: minimum broadband speeds. As I posted last July this is the only way that BSPs will be forced to give broadband customers the level of service they are entitled to, and at the same time create a more level playing field for broadband providers.

Instead, in a response to a review by the Advertising Standards Authority into broadband advertising practices, Ofcom recommends that BSPs should be forced to publish a “Typical Speeds Range”. This is described as “representing the range of speeds actually achieved by half of customers”.

Ofcom also recommends that “If a maximum ‘up to’ speed is used in an advertisement, then the TSR must have at least equal prominence. Furthermore, the theoretical maximum ‘up to’ speed stated must be a speed actually achievable by a material number of customers.” This is particularly odd, since DSL technology simply cannot deliver the theoretical maximum (as advertised) in real life.

Finally, Ofcom has finally agreed with something I have been calling for since 2006, namely “a move away from advertising ‘up to’ headline speeds”. Well, that’s not quite as strong as banning this useless phrase, but we should be thankful for small mercies.

Whether any of these recommendations is ever implemented, and in what form, of course remains very much open to question. It would be surprising if, even after several more rounds of recommendation, review and procedural drafts circulating between the various regulatory and government bodies, that BSPs and their advertising partners were not able to neatly sidestep the key issues and keep consumers just as confused as they always have been.

The TSR idea sounds persuasive at first sight, but in reality, if implemented, is likely to do little to make broadband services clearer to consumers. BSPs will find all sorts of ways to obfuscate what TSRs really mean, there will be endless arguments over how they should be calculated, and in any case, if the TSR has as much prominence as the “Up To” speed in advertising, this is likely to be even more confusing to end customers.

It seems almost as though Ofcom got half way towards recommending Minimum Speed guarantees, and then pulled back, for what reasons we can only surmise. After all, a true TSR would include both a “minimum” and a “maximum”, at either end of the “range”. But if it only applies to half the customer base, it is as good as useless.

As I have pointed out many times, the background to this debate is the universal broadband commitment, which is itself an outcome of the misguided attempt to avoid talking about the politically incorrect “rural divide”. We need to get over this – it’s the nature of the technology and there’s nothing anyone can do about it until we run fibre to every doorstep in the country. It’s the poor souls in the 5-10% of the country who live too far from exchanges and out of cable coverage who are the reason we have to have these fruitless debates. If the government and regulator did the decent thing and put those homes, however many there are, into a special “rural broadband” category, the rest of the population and the industry in general could get on with talking about broadband in grown up language. Advertised minimum speeds would be perfectly feasible and DSL services could be banded into packages consumers could understand.

Too little, too late; but now that Ofcom has finally bitten the bullet on “up to”, here’s something else it needs to get stuck into: anecdotally I am seeing increasing numbers of friends and family getting frustrated with switching broadband providers. In particular the issue seems to come down to where responsibility lies for any problems with the line or broadband service. I am aware of several cases where AOL (TalkTalk) broadband customers have had problems getting acceptable service, either as new customers or when they upgrade for some reason; AOL/TalkTalk is unable to help, BT is unable to help, and the customer feels that they “may as well” go with BT because they know BT owns the network and will get the problem sorted out.

There are too many conspiracy theories to start thinking about, but there seems little doubt that it is too difficult to switch and many consumers consider it too much hassle. Our own survey of UK broadband customers (admittedly carried out in late 2008) showed that “hassle of scheduling connection/installation” and “inconvenience of cancelling service” were the single most important reasons why consumers would avoid switching to a new BSP. Ofcom may eventually get the advertising sorted out, but that will have little impact if consumers still feel it just isn’t worth trying to change providers.

David Mercer

Client Reading: Broadband Service Provider Performance Benchmarking: Q3 2010 (Europe)

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