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Citizens Advice Demands Strong Rules to Stop Misleading Broadband Ads

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014 (7:43 am) - Score 634

The Citizens Advice agency has called on the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to toughen up its rules after the CA felt it necessary to lodge four complaints against adverts for broadband and phone bundles from BT, Virgin Media, Sky Broadband and TalkTalk due to their allegedly “misleading” prices.

All of the four primary complaints highlight sixteen examples of adverts that promise free or cut price broadband deals for a set period of time, which the CA believes are “misleading consumers into contracts that turn out to be more costly“.

For example, the CA’s BT complaint notes an offer of “free broadband” for six months (that part is in very large print) and underneath this price, in far smaller print, is the statement: “Then £10 monthly. BT Line £16.99 monthly from month 1. New packages without calls.” All of the other gripes follow a similar form.

In each case the CA complained that such adverts “emphasise the free element of the package in a way that detracts from and obscures the true total cost to the consumer” and the “linked requirement and cost of line rental is not prominently displayed and can be overlooked“.

Gillian Guy, CEO of Citizens Advice, said:

Attractive offers can lead to bigger broadband costs. People are being lured into more costly contracts because additional charges are hidden in the small print. Often it is impossible for the deals to be free or offered at the cut price because costs for other elements like line rental are yet to be added.

Consumers need to be presented with the total cost to be able to make meaningful comparisons. The industry needs to improve the way it advertises deals so consumers are clear about what they are paying for.

We hope the ASA will take swift action on these adverts. The regulator also needs to look into reviewing the advertising practices of the broadband industry to stop similar adverts being published in the future.”

In fairness the ASA already requires that ISPs do not separate out the cost of compulsory phone line rental in their broadband bundles, which follows a 2012 ruling against Virgin Media (here and here) and is specifically true for bundles where the discount is only available if you take the providers own phone service.

Since then Line Rental has always been stated on such promotions, which stems from the ASA’s 2012 requirement that phone line rental should be “stated sufficiently prominently” alongside adverts for related broadband bundles. But many adverts, particularly those where line rental is an unavoidable included cost, continue to take liberties with this by only stating the cost inside small print.

The ASA’s rules must make allowances for small print, but equally Citizens Advice would prefer it if ISPs were forced to put the total cost on their promotions, which might also need to factor in installation costs. But not all consumers will need to pay for installation (e.g. free migrations between the same platform) and so including this could just as equally create confusion. Similarly many broadband ISPs still offer a service where the choice of phone provider is a flexible one and not a strict requirement, although most of the big boys clearly prefer to force their own phone solution.

In that sense a ruling by the ASA that required line rental to be stated with equal, as opposed to merely “sufficient“, prominence alongside the broadband price might be the best middle ground.

Separately we’ve noticed that some big ISPs (e.g. BT) sometimes have a habit of hiding the future post-contract prices in their small print and this can make it difficult to compare services (few consumers enjoy feeling forced to switch at the very end of a contract just to maintain a reasonable price). Luckily most other ISPs do tell you what the post-contract price will be on the offer itself.

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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 Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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9 Responses
  1. Avatar GNewton says:

    I think they address the wrong agency here for this. ASA has proven several times that it is unable to do its job, the best known example being its belief that copper-VDSL is fibre broadband.

    1. Avatar FibreFred says:

      And coax you always seem to forget that one but it’s important to remember it as its where the issue started, unless of course you think it’s ok for coax to be called fibre broadband

    2. Avatar Steve Jones says:

      Yes, but I doubt the great majority of the population actually care what it’s called. Call it a fibre-copper hybrid and I can’t see it make any different. I think main thing the average customer wants to know is what will it do for them functionally (like video streaming, playing games, working from home, uploading videos, included packages etc.) and how much does it cost. The ASA have allowed SPs to get away with hiding the real costs for with misleading ads for far too long. A wording that primarily just annoys the purists is of much less importance.

    3. Avatar MikeW says:

      I only had to read the title of the article, and I knew exactly who would make the first comment, and what it would contain.

      Thanks for not disappointing @GN.

    4. Avatar James Harrison says:

      Steve, quite right (and I was the one who put in the most recent set of VDSL “fibre broadband” complaints). However, BT (and VM to an extent, though their HFC network is far more consistent and performant) are trying to upsell their services by association by misuse of the term fibre broadband. Most importantly though it makes actual FTTP providers’ jobs much harder, because it misleads consumers on a very simple technical term. Suppliers like Gigaclear are now using (slightly confusing) marketing terms like “ultrafast broadband” which is technology-neutral because people conflate FTTC with “fibre broadband”, even though there’s no FTTP.

      The impact of these misleading prices/deals is much greater than the confusion between “fibre broadband” and actual fibre broadband, though, just because of the scope. The ASA is much more likely to rule in favour of CA in this matter as a result.

    5. Avatar FibreFred says:

      But James this is where the argument falls apart , you are saying that its less of a problem for vm as their speeds are more consistent , that totally destroys your argument in the first place, this is about whether fibre is brought to the home , virgin do not ( Bt limited amounts )

      End of

      Speed etc don’t come into it

      As for the impact this fibre broadband mis selling has I’m sure it’s not even measurable, we have so little FTTP providers in the uk I doubt it makes any difference or im

    6. Avatar FibreFred says:

      … or impact at all

  2. Avatar Web Dude says:

    FF – I really don’t think the argument put forward by James ‘falls apart’ – his main comment is that misleading pricing is far more significant to users (and undeniably something for ASA to stamp on) than whether terminology (about fibre or fibre/copper hybrid, as the means of provision,) deserves similar level of adherence. GN (and perhaps a few more) go on about the “fibre broadband” phrase and ASA allowing it because they (ASA before anyone flames me) are dumb, but few others seem to care enough for it to be a major issue.

    Web sites like ISPR and ThinkBB etc sometimes need to make the distinction between FTTC and FTTP for those who are unaware that ‘Fibre Broadband’ does not always mean fibre to your house, and frankly for 50% of the country with no option of VM, who cares whether it is ‘fibre’ ‘coax’ or whatever – the physical connection is far less important to consumers than to geeks arguing points…

    Average Joe just wants to know (a) if there is traffic management which will block/slow some facility they want and (b) raw speed/ data allowance / cost.

  3. Avatar Web Dude says:

    James – I’d suggest using Citizens Advice (or CAB) rather than abbreviating to CA, since for a very long time CA has been the Consumer Association, publisher of Which? magazine.

    As an aside, for Mark, perhaps… Before they go reporting others to ASA for misleading information and charges, it would be nice if CAB would get their own house in order and start using 03xxx numbers rather than 0844 (premium from a mobile), given some of the public most in need of their advice will be ripped off by the cost of calling them (partly down to the mobile networks, but easily avoidable if some CABs didn’t use 0844, 0845, 0870 numbers).

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