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UPDATE Ofcom – Slow Broadband Speeds Mean You Can Exit Contract Anytime

Thursday, June 11th, 2015 (8:13 am) - Score 28,458

Consumers who suffer significantly slower broadband speeds than promised by their ISP will, under Ofcom’s new rules, be allowed to exit their contract at any time. But the new rules will only apply to providers that offer ADSL2+ (up to 20Mbps) or FTTC / VDSL (up to 40-80Mbps) based services (i.e. Virgin Media is excluded).

The national telecom regulator’s move is designed to coincide with the introduction of their new migration rules on 20th June 2015, which will force most of the markets fixed line broadband and phone providers to adopt a new harmonised switching system called GPL NoT+ (full guide here). The system will make it easier to switch by only requiring consumers to contact their new (gaining) provider.

At the same time Ofcom yesterday opened a new monitoring and enforcement programme to help keep an eye on the market for ISPs that make it difficult for consumers to cancel their contracts (here). But it now appears as if the regulator will do more than merely monitor the market and indeed they intend to give consumers even more protection from slow ISPs.

Sharon White, Ofcom CEO, said:

When Ofcom was established, access to a reliable internet connection and mobile phone was a ‘nice to have’. Now it is essential to the functioning of the economy, to the way people work and live their lives.

Improving delivery to consumers doesn’t just fall at the feet of the regulator. The delivery of first class communications services is primarily the responsibility of providers. Our job is to ensure that markets work for consumers and citizens, principally by encouraging competition.

Where markets don’t work well enough – or where competition alone isn’t enough to secure good outcomes for consumers – then we have powers to intervene.”

The Current Approach

Presently most of the markets main providers have already signed up to the regulators voluntary 2010 Broadband Speed Code of Practice, which among other things requires ISPs to explain to new customers the access line speed that they’re likely to achieve at home, and to try to resolve any problems when speeds fall significantly below the estimate.

Any ISPs that fail to resolve the above problem must allow customers to leave, without penalty, within the first 3 months of a new contract; albeit after the provider has first been given a chance to resolve the issue.

The New Approach

Sadly most of the United Kingdom cannot receive the more stable broadband speeds delivered by Virgin Media’s cable (EuroDOCSIS) platform or via pure fibre optic (FTTH/P) providers like Hyperoptic, Gigaclear and B4RN etc. However Virgin Media do now intend to reach around 60% of the UK by 2020 (here).

Instead the vast majority of us find that our only fixed line option is to take one of those ‘up to’ 20Mbps ADSL2+ based standard copper broadband connections or an ‘up to’ 40-80Mbps style hybrid Fibre-to-the-Cabinet (FTTC / VDSL) service that is confusingly often referred to as “fibre broadband” (e.g. BTInfinity) even though it uses some copper cable just like ADSL2+.

But copper telecoms cable, whether it runs from the telephone exchange (ADSL) or merely from a nearby street cabinet (FTTC) and then into your home, is vulnerable to all sorts of problems (poor quality wiring, EM interference, water ingress etc.) and the signal degrades over distance. In short both solutions, but particularly ADSL/ADSL2+, are known to be highly variable Internet access technologies.

As such Ofcom’s new rule will target DSL services like ADSL because these are the most likely to fall foul, as proven by many previous speedtests. Just look at the average performance for ADSL connections below and consider how that often comes from services advertising speeds of up to 16-24Mbps (Ofcom’s last speeds report).


The new rules are still based around Ofcom’s existing Minimum Guaranteed Access Line Speed (MGALS), which reflects the access line speeds achieved by the slowest 10% of the ISPs customers. In other words if your actual access line speed falls below the MGALS level then you are allowed to exit the contract (note: customers will in future be told the ISPs MGALS at point of sale, which will come alongside the usual speed range), although the ISP must still be allowed time to resolve the problem first (e.g. several weeks, often involving a possible engineer visit etc.).

But switching ISP without fixing the underlying issue first may not always result in better performance, although a new provider could equally show more willingness to help and if the issue is capacity related then you may indeed receive improved speeds. In any case the new rule now extends outside of the current 3 month window and is applicable to the entire contract length.

The difficulty for consumers will be in knowing whether or not they meet the MGALS requirement. In any case Ofcom expects some providers to start putting the new code in place from October 2015, although officially it must be in place for January 2016.

Meanwhile Ofcom said they will next month also outline plans to make it easier for mobile phone customers to change provider.

UPDATE 10:12am

The full 2015 Voluntary Code of Practice for Broadband Speeds is now online. Ofcom has also included a rough summary of what’s changed for 2015.

Ofcom’s 2015 Code Changes

• Require speed estimates to be provided in the form of a range by ISPs providing FTTC/VDSL and fixed broadband delivered via fixed wireless technology (such as WiMAX, satellite and LTE).

• Specify that the Code applies to the sale of residential products, including upgrades/downgrades from the effective date of this Code onwards.

• Focus the type of information required to be given at point of sale to the key information which would allow a consumer to make an informed choice about the proposed broadband service before entering into a contract.

• Specify information which is relevant to a customer’s use of the broadband service to be provided following the sale (including information given about speeds at point of sale and the additional post-sale information specified below).

• Require ISPs to provide the above information in after sales correspondence (via letter, email and/or in My Account) as soon as possible after the sale has been concluded (and in any event within 7 calendar days), and to set this out clearly in plain English and in an easy to read format.

• If a customer requests further information on any of these issues at the point of sale, ISPs should provide further explanation at that point.

• For information on traffic management and fair usage, an ISP should provide guidance in the follow up literature in plain English, including links to website information if an ISP applies such policies.

• Replace the requirement on ISPs using technologies such as cable to indicate the likely throughput speed during peak times to a requirement on all ISPs, regardless of technology, to provide information in the follow-up literature explaining the factors which may cause peak time congestion.

• Extend the arrangements set out in the 4th Principle of the code to apply throughout the full duration of a customer’s contract period.

• Explain how Ofcom will act in cases of non-compliance with the Code.

• Include definitions of the technologies covered by the Code.

Presently only the biggest providers have signed up to the new 2015 code (the rest are still mostly supporting Ofcom’s policy from 2010), although no doubt more will soon join.

UPDATE 12:25pm

A comment from Citizen’s Advice.

Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:

Customers have been hit by sky-high exit fees despite getting bad service. Hidden charges and unfair penalties are all too common for mobile phone and broadband consumers. We have found some people can face up to £625 to get out of a broadband contract and £800 to exit a mobile phone deal.

It is good to see Ofcom taking a stronger stance against the companies acting unfairly and hopefully this will start to make the market better for customers.”

Leave a Comment
13 Responses
  1. TheManStan says:

    That’s a decent method, which in reality is a driver for BT to invest in OR to push fibre deeper into the network.

    Technically it would make sense (doesn’t mean BT will) to have a MGALS as part of the wholesale checker readout for transparency.
    You’d be able to see what OR think you can achieve in a best and worst case scenario, and the point at which you would be able to escape contract with your ISP.

    1. Steve Jones says:

      There’s not incentive for OR to change anything. The contract that will be existed is with the ISP. In any event, MGALS only applies to the lowest ten percentile of speeds for a particular product. ISPs could define two products or even more). One being for those expected to get decent speeds whilst the other will be for those expected to get lower speed ranges. So the latter might be, say, and “up to” 4mbps service.

      The other issue is that if ISPs are faced with a lot of people leaving contracts early they might simply stop offering products at all.

      There is something of an inherent problem in the way that Ofcom define the MGALS limit. If it is set at the speed of the lowest 10 percentile of customers, doesn’t that mean that at any time there will always be 10% of customers who can leave early?

      Finally, the comment that EuroDOCSIS guarantees bandwidth has to be qualified. It depends on local contention rates and, of course, like xDSL on backhaul contention. Measuring the impact of contention is a lot more difficult than basic line speed as it is, by its very nature, subject to variation over time. Defining service levels on such products is fraught with difficulties.

    2. TheManStan says:


      So as VM pushes out their network, ISP customers on the OR network won’t look to this as an easy out to migrate?

    3. TheManStan says:

      Or even for 4G as coverage improves…

    4. Steve Jones says:

      I would suspect most of those customers who can’t get acceptable ADSL speeds will, where VM is available, already have jumped ship. OR already have incentive enough to roll out FTTC (and, in time, g.fast) into VM areas to mitigate such customer losses. The great majority of VM areas will already have FTTC available.

      The reality is that most of those with the slowest speeds will not be in areas where VM is even a possibility. As for 4G as an alternative, then that will depend on cellular operators roll-out plans. Unfortunately 4G will, for obvious reasons, get rolled out into those areas which already have decent broadband provision for commercial and cost reasons. Smothering the country with the necessary large number of relatively small 4G cells to provide fast bandwidth to more difficult to reach areas would be extremely expensive and, very possibly, uneconomic. OR have products in development which will allow “micro-cells” to be built more cost-effectively, but that will only be where there is existing fibre laid down as, in effect, it depends on where FTTC (and FTTP) have been delivered.

    5. TheManStan says:

      Remember that the license conditions for 4G include a legally binding obligation for 85% of geographical areas vs population by 2017.


  2. Vince says:

    “Sadly most of the United Kingdom cannot receive the more stable broadband speeds delivered by Virgin Media’s cable (EuroDOCSIS) platform ”

    presumably what you’re smoking is potent…. “more stable” and “virgin media” – pull the other one.

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      Don’t forget we’re speaking largely relative to ADSL.

  3. DTMark says:

    I looked at the Code recently. We’ve had VDSL enabled here and I was interested in seeing how the Code works in practice. So I’d have thought it would say that if the throughput is less than the estimate then I can cancel and receive all my money back. Seems straightforward.

    The context of this is that we have 4G running at between about 37 and 50 down and normally around 40 to 50 up.

    VDSL BTW estimates are not really estimates at all. Anywhere from 15 to 36 down and 3 to 7 up. The line length, AFAIK, is about 1186m. With ADSL we got about 42% of the theoretical sync rate for the line. Suspect line plant is poor quality hence even BT have no idea what speed it might achieve with VDSL and protect themselves by asserting they’re not going to be held to very much at all. No ISP trusts the BTW estimates, so no ISP gives the top Range A estimate to the customer.

    The highest end of that range would be acceptable, the lowest end, not. It is simply too much of a downgrade from what we have already.

    What I actually see is a lengthy document with lots of caveats which so far as I can see protect the ISP, not the customer.

    There are get-outs around ranges and “similar lines” – what they have to do with the one that comes to this house is a mystery, the estimates can be vague, there is confusion between line speed (totally irrelevant) and throughput (relevant), and after all of this, the ISP can elect to “wash their hands of it all” having taken the customers money which they get to keep.

    If DSL is the only technology option available to you then you may well be stuck with what you get since there is only one set of infra and this Code may give ISPs a nudge to kick BT’s backside and get crumbling, cack old infra upgraded, but if you have choice, as we do, then the customer really should be able to get a full refund and take their business elsewhere.

  4. Neil says:

    Excellent ill be able to escape the shower that is BT who quoted me 65Mb when i signed up and what i happily got until G.INP was enabled at our cabinet and the POS ECI modem that was supplied is not compatible which has resulted in an 11Mb decrease to 54Mb. Oh and no they will not supply a new Huawei or BT hub 5 for me either to get back to normal and what speeds i should get either. They can go and screw there self now 😀

  5. Mark Watson says:

    Line speed is only factor of slow ISP what happens when the line speed is high but the data throughput is tiny.

    At work we’ve got an ISP that although has a line speed of 8Mb/s adsl2+ the actual data throughput barely reaches 1Mb/s and a lot of the time the upload speed of 0.8Mb/s according to most speedtests is higher than the download. One test I did today didn’t even manage 0.1Mb/s.

    Download a 4MB file from Microsoft and I’ve seen ‘Greater than 12hours’ to download it, yet other websites work fine. Download the same file on our other site with a different ISP and it’s seconds.

  6. Chris Phillips says:

    So OfCom is protecting Virgin Media once again. Letting them use the term Fibre optic broadband in their advertising when in fact its FTTC with a coax connection to the home.

    I’ve only been back with VM for a ~4 months and am already wishing i stuck with sky.

    417ms latency 1.02/0.23 Mbps on their 50Mbps service.

    What service guarantees do i have, how long do i need to suffer this terrible service before i can leave again?

  7. ALAN FOX says:

    My Virgin Media broadband is very unstable. Sometimes I have as low as 2.6Mbs download and 0.6 MPs Upload with a Max once only of approx 25Mbs. The average is about 8-10Mbs. It sometimes stops working altogether for upto 2 and a half days with no internet at all, but the TV and phone are OK.To be fair to Virgin Media they have changed everything including the router and cable from the junction box, put a new cable under my garden but its still poor. Any thoughts.
    regards Alan Fox.

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