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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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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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