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UPDATE ASA Slap BT Broadband Checker for Misleading Speed Estimate

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014 (7:52 am) - Score 1,535

The Advertising Standards Authority has triggered some confusion after it ruled that an Internet download speed estimate provided by the superfast broadband BTInfinity (FTTC) “availability checker” on BT’s consumer website (bt.com) was “misleading” because the complainant could not receive the speed promoted. The ruling could also have repercussions for other ISPs.

As most ISPreview.co.uk readers know the act of estimating a customer’s potential broadband speed over a copper telephone line is somewhat of a guesstimate, which doesn’t always reflect reality. ISPs can make an estimate based on the length of the copper line and other factors, although these can easily be undone by other problems on the line such as damaged infrastructure, poor home wiring, external electromagnetic interference and a whole host of other things (many of which may not be within the ISPs ability to control). Accuracy of such estimates is further eroded when a postcode check is the only option.

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Suffice to say that there usually has to be an acceptance of the fact that the estimate given may not be entirely reliable and your actual speeds could vary, which is a problem inherent to the various underlying ADSL and VDSL technologies being employed (the signal degrades with distance). In addition, Ofcom’s 2010 Voluntary Broadband Speed Code requires that member ISPs provide customers with an “estimated access line speed“, so it’s not something they can simply stop doing.

Ofcom’s code also means that any customer who suffers a significant fall in performance, below their original estimate, should within the first three months of a new service be able to exit their contract penalty free.

As a result the ASA’s latest ruling risks causing confusion in the market after one of BT’s potential customers challenged whether the “23Mb-33Mb Download speed range” estimated for their telephone line was “misleading and could be substantiated“. An example of the outcome style is given below, albeit with a different customers line.

bt_infinity_fttc_availability_checker

In response BT said that they were “unable to provide detailed analysis of non-BT customers’ lines because that was dealt with by Openreach and that due to their organisational structure, they did not have access to data held by Openreach“. Meanwhile BTOpenreach explained how their estimates worked.

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Openreach on Broadband Speed Estimates

Openreach explained that to estimate line speeds, they carried out detailed and large scale statistical analysis of possible speeds and the quoted values seen by the complainant were typical of what could be achieved by the vast majority of superfast broadband lines. They said the speed estimate ranged from the 80th to 20th percentile for similar phone lines, therefore, 80% of end-users could achieve the quoted speeds. They said they had checked the complainant’s line and confirmed that it lay outside the statistical range, and due to a variety of reasons, the complainant would be unable to achieve the quoted speeds.

However the ASA has effectively ruled that estimates are not good enough if the customer cannot receive what is predicted and they told BT to “ensure their availability checker provided accurate information“, which could have significant ramifications.

ASA Ruling (REF: A14-257752)

The ASA understood that the Ofcom report related to consumers in general. We also understood that speeds could be checked via BT’s ‘availability checker’ by a specific phone number or by house number and post code and therefore considered that consumers would expect that any resulting download speed claims would be accurate for their address. We considered that the download speeds quoted on the BT website would be a material consideration for consumers when deciding whether or not to take up BT’s superfast fibre optic BT Infinity product.

Because the website included a download claim related to a specific address which was not available to that consumer, we concluded the ad was misleading.

The outcome is an unusual one and there’s also a distinct lack of background detail concerning why the estimated speed was not available to the customer in the first place, which strikes us as being a crucial question that has not been fully explained.

At the time of writing BT’s availability checker still exists and we have hailed the operator in the hope of finding out what changes they have had to make in order to satisfy the ASA’s ruling. On the flip side we expect that some pure fibre optic providers (and possibly Virgin Media too), which are able to offer fairly reliable predictions about performance due to their stronger infrastructure, will be very pleased.

UPDATE 8th May 2014

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BT’s consumer division has now given us a reply, although it’s a bit cagey on the subject of how they intend to rectify the ASA’s concern.

A Spokesperson for BT Consumer said:

Ofcom has defined rules for all ISPs regarding how they quote broadband speeds. BT has taken care to abide by those rules and regularly reviews communications to ensure we offer customers clarity. We currently give customers the range of speeds they can expect and make it clear that this is an estimate.

Despite this, we note the ASA decision relating to the presentation of the speed results and we will work with them to ensure that they are also happy with the way we describe the results from our Infinity speed checker. Speed estimate data is supplied to all ISPs by Openreach, in line with Ofcom’s Code of Practice. However, it’s important to note that speeds can be affected by factors outside our control, such as internal wiring and the modem or PC being used by the customer.”

The ASA’s ruling was extremely vague and this will no doubt make life harder for BT in examining how best to adjust their results. From our perspective the solution would be to offer a more reflective /wider range of estimated performance, while also doing more to clearly explain the caveats of that estimate.

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Mark-Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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