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Advertising Watchdog Seeks Clearer ISP Promotions of Broadband Speed

Thursday, November 17th, 2016 (12:01 am) - Score 774
80mbps bduk \"up to\" broadband speed limit traffic sign

The Advertising Standards Authority has today called for a change to the way that broadband speeds are advertised by Internet Service Providers (ISP) in the United Kingdom, which reflects the results of a new study that found “most consumers” wrongfully expected to get the speed advertised in their ISPs headline claim.

At present the existing guidance requires ISPs to promote a headline speed that is achievable by at least 10% of their customers (i.e. the fastest 10%), which must also be preceded by an “up to” qualifier and a “prominent disclaimer” of any aspects that could impact your service performance.

On top of that most fixed-line broadband subscribers, particularly those who take a traditional DSL (ADSL or VDSL2 / FTTC) based fixed line product, will also give new customers a personalised estimate of their expected broadband speed during the sign-up process (this usually comes in the form of an upper and lower performance range).

Since the introduction of the original changes, complaints to the ASA regarding speed claims have fallen by 60%. However earlier this year the Government’s former Digital Economy Minister, Ed Vaizey MP, joined with many other MPs and related groups in order to call for the current approach to be improved (here, here, here and here).

Ed Vaizey MP said (March 2016):

“I hope that the Advertising Standards Authority will crack down on how providers advertise their speeds. At the moment, if only 10% of customers are receiving the advertised speed, in the eyes of the ASA that is supposed to be okay.

I totally accept that the ASA does a good job – it is a great example of self-regulation – but it really needs to go further on that. In my humble opinion, at least 75% of people should be getting the speeds that the broadband providers are advertising.”

In May 2016 the ASA bowed to Government concern and announced that they would conduct some new consumer research in order to examine whether the broadband speed claims made by ISPs are fair.

Today the results have been published and it looks as if broadband ISPs could soon be forced to accept even stricter rules, although the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) will first have to conduct a new review in order to define the best way forward.

Guy Parker, ASA Chief Executive, said:

“Making sure ads don’t mislead is at the heart of what we do. We’ve taken action this year to tackle confusing broadband pricing, to the benefit of consumers. Our new research indicates that speed claims in ads contribute to consumers’ expectations of the broadband speeds they’ll receive, but their expectations are not being met. That needs to change.”

Shahriar Coupal, Director of CAP, said:

“CAP welcomes the ASA’s research and we’ll now begin the process of updating our guidance and publish a response next spring.

The research provides good insights into consumers’ understanding of broadband speed claims, but it doesn’t identify an obvious alternative way to communicate speeds that would be suitable to everybody’s needs. It also tells us that consumers believe that advertising can only do so much, which underpins the importance of detailed broadband speed information being provided elsewhere.”

The GfK research itself claims to have used a qualitative method, which involved a tiny sample of just 14 mini-groups of 6 participants, each lasting 2 hours, and 12 individual depth interviews each lasting 1 hour. The study also tested consumers’ understanding of alternative speed claims including average speed claims, range speed claims and minimum speed claims.

GfK Results

· Speed is an important factor for a significant proportion of consumers who are making decisions between providers

· Levels of knowledge and understanding of broadband speeds vary, but it is low overall with many not knowing what speed they need to carry out daily online tasks

· Most understand that the higher the number in the ad, the higher the speed of the service, but many are unclear on what this means for them and what speed they would likely achieve

· Crucially, the research shows that despite that uncertainty most consumers believe they are likely to receive a speed at or close to the headline speed claim when, for many, that is not likely to be the case

The actual results aren’t easy to summarise and we are concerned about the small sample size, as well as the fact that much of the study appears to focus on the headline speeds and largely overlooks the personalised estimates that ISPs are supposed to give their new subscribers. Upload speeds also don’t get a mention, even though many have called for them to be included.

However perhaps the most interesting bit of the research stems from where the ASA proposed several alternative approaches to advertising broadband speed. It’s worth reading this quick summary of the responses in order to get an idea of the ASA’s position, as well as that of those they surveyed.

Alternative speed claims

1. Change the existing ‘up to’ claim to be applicable to at least 25% or 50% of customers.

Whilst participants agreed that it was more useful to know the speed that at least 25% or 50% of customers could achieve when compared to 10% of customers, views were still largely negative. Participants reflected that even at 50%, the speed claim was not relevant to a majority of customers which meant that it was still difficult to gauge the type of speed they might expect to achieve.

2. Using an average speed claim (e.g. “Average speed of 10Mbps”).

Overall, average speed claims received mixed responses. Some participants were positive towards this type of claim as they felt it gave an indication of the speed that most customers would receive. Especially when compared to up to speed claims, some felt that an average provided a figure that more people were likely to achieve.

These participants tended to interpret average speed claims as ‘50% of customers will achieve above the average’.

3. Using a range in speed claims (e.g. “Typical speeds of 3-13Mbps”).

Views regarding range speed claims were also mixed across the research. Range information was particularly useful for those who felt that they could best determine the speed they would achieve by knowing what the majority of customers would achieve. Most participants felt optimistic that they would fall within the typical range. They felt that this would help manage their expectations.

Those with more knowledge regarding factors that could impact on speeds achieved had mixed views towards range claims. Some anticipated that they would use this knowledge to help them determine where within the range they would be likely to fall. However others felt that the range information was too broad and based on their experience knew that there were factors that would impact on speed achieved, but were unsure what this meant for where within the range they would fall.

NOTE: The range itself was apparently based on typical speeds that could be achieved by 80% of customers and people appeared to favour adverts that included a reference to the 80% clarification (i.e. “80% of customers achieve download speeds that fall within this range”).

4. Using a minimum speed claim (e.g. “Minimum speed of 60Mbps”).

Many research participants found the minimum speed claim useful and appealing. For many the appeal focused on the simplicity and transparency of the speed claim. Participants anticipated that customers would never achieve a speed below the speed specified and for that reason felt that the claim constituted a ‘guarantee’. This was appealing in itself, especially amongst those who were more sceptical regarding claims made in advertising.

A few more knowledgeable participants further noted that although a minimum speed was transparent, it was not attractive as for some services (e.g. ADSL), the speed advertising would look very low. These participants queried whether they would even pay attention to an advert presenting a very low speed and concluded that they would be unlikely to look into the advertised product as it lacked appeal.

The ASA seems to have considered the unusual option of a “minimum speed” above, which in our view is a bit bonkers unless a stricter definition is adopted. Otherwise the only set figure that an ISP could provide for this is close to ZERO (Mbps) and that would have a hugely negative impact on VDSL2 (FTTC) and ADSL2 based providers (a small number of lines can drop below 1-2Mbps). On this point we’d encourage the ASA to consult ISPs about the technical reality of such service provision.

Otherwise it looks like the ‘range‘ and ‘average speed‘ options drew more favour from respondents, albeit somewhat depending upon how that information was reflected (i.e. people clearly liked to be informed about what the range itself represented, such as whether it applied to 80% of customers).

It’s also worth remembering that service speeds can fluctuate due to all sorts of reasons, such as traffic management policies, long copper lines, peak time network congestion and sometimes even issues like slow WiFi or poor home wiring, many of which represent aspects that ISPs cannot control.

In that sense there’s always going to be some degree of confusion or performance variation, no matter which approach is adopted. We suspect that when the mass media starts reporting on this a lot of what they write may also overlook the personalised estimates that subscribers are supposed to receive.

James Blessing, Chair of the ISPA Council, said:

“The broadband market has changed dramatically in recent years and the Internet Industry fully supports the ASA’s move to bring the guidance on broadband advertising up to date. The ASA now needs to adopt an evidence-based approach to developing a revised set of rules that delivers actual benefits to consumers and takes account of developing broadband technologies.

Any new guidance needs to reflect that whilst speed is an important factor, it is not the only reason a customer decides on a deal. Crucially, the ASA’s research has not identified an effective alternative for the current approach to “up to” speed claims and ISPA, alongside the wider internet industry, looks forward to supporting the ASA in developing a revised and evidence-based guidance on this and getting a workable new understanding of how speeds should be advertised.”

Tom Mockridge, Virgin Media CEO, said:

“This is long overdue reform of a loophole which lets companies advertise a headline broadband speed if it is available to only 10% of customers.

Consumers should know what they’re paying for and not be hoodwinked by a little known rule which is supposed to be in their interest.”

It’s worth pointing out that Virgin Media also commissioned Ipsos MORI to research consumer attitudes to the 10 per cent rule, which found that three-quarters of consumers felt misled when speed and usage claims are not included in adverts (rising to 82% among older people aged 55-75) and nine-out-of-ten believe this information is important in broadband advertising.

The onus for finding the best balance now rests firmly with the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), which will report back during Spring 2017 with their proposals. No doubt whatever it proposes will end up being divisive, with even the research showing that there was no single solution where everybody could reach 100% agreement.

If an average speed is adopted then we might see standard FTTC packages being offered as something around 25-30Mbps (instead of ‘up to’ 38Mbps today), while ADSL2+ services would drop from ‘up to’ 17Mbps to around 6-8Mbps. On the other hand this would benefit Virgin Media and pure fibre optic (FTTP/H) providers, where advertised speeds are usually more reliable.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he is also the founder of ISPreview since 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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30 Responses
  1. TheFacts

    So no proposals for text in adverts?

  2. DTMark

    Option 4 – minimum speed please. It’s the only one that is even vaguely relevant. All the others suffer the same problems as now.

    It properly distinguishes between product types (e.g. business circuits and residential).

    It focuses the cable operator’s minds on segment congestion and at a stroke means that BT would need to change their plans for G.Fast in order to be able to deploy and advertise it as a premium product by only deploying on short circuits rather than, as is likely to be the case, just ‘doing some cabinets’ and crowing about headline speeds that almost nobody will get.

    Minimum speed or no speed quoted at all. The latter would have to be true for e.g. “roaming” 4G connections (mobile phones) as opposed to static home-supplied ones (e.g. “Relish”).

    This creates proper differentials in the market that are totally lacking now.

    Then sort out the speed code of practice and simplify it. If the customer does not get the quoted speeds at any time, they may leave without penalty, and receive a refund for that month’s subscription – and if within the first month, also receive a refund of any setup charges.

    Simple..

    • There are a lot of problems with the “minimum” speed idea as it stands, not least the fact that without some clear definition (i.e. what the slowest 10% receive on a specific package or maybe the technologies guaranteed rate) then it would effectively be ZERO for every connection type. You need some definition for minimum, but if you have a definition then it’s not really a minimum. Confusing.

      Likewise the idea of quoting no speed at all might make sense.. if everybody understood the differences between connection technologies, which they don’t. Ordinary consumers would find it even more difficult to tell one type of “broadband” from another.

      Mind you every solution has its problems, although the “average” approach is probably the easiest to communicate.

    • DTMark

      The minimum guaranteed speed, that which the connection will not fall below.

      At the moment this would only apply to leased lines.

      It is not beyond the wit or means of VDSL and cable providers to provide such a minimum committed speed whether part of a standard, or, probably, a premium offering.

      Changing the legislation regarding advertising in this way would focus minds on something more relevant and put an end to irrelevant headline chasing.

      If the average VDSL speed were, say, 45Mbps then most of the people round here would be justified in complaining that their VDSL is “broken”. That number is simply not relevant. Precisely because it is an average. This barely moves us forward at all.

      However the advertising is done, if it is “national” and “standardised” then it needs to be relevant to *everyone* or we remain where we are.

      If no speed is quoted it’s up to the customer to decide whether to go with the provider that is not confident enough to quote one. That then focuses attention on those “personal estimates”.

    • TheFacts

      @DTM – how do you propose a DSL product should be advertised? You have not said.

    • DTMark

      As per the last paragraph of the post.

      To quote nationally available speeds, VDSL would have to be guaranteed to be delivered over much shorter runs than now and much more attention would need to be paid to the line plant where it is decrepit.

      Oddly enough BT does some of this already with adevrtising – the thing can’t be called “Infinity” if the delivered speed is below a certain threshold.

      See points about G.Fast and what “up to” speed advertising permits, indeed, encourages.

      Moving to a minimum speed would be a game-changer for the industry and drive network quality.

    • Chris P

      @DTMark

      that is seriously bonkers.

      If you and the rest of the general public understood that various DSL products are sold typically in bands and that they would be offered the products in the bands they could receive then surely the problem becomes a non problem. Averages and minimums are much more confusing. Its super easy to understand that adsl goes upto 8mb, adsl2 goes upto 20mb and vdsl can be upto ~50mb or ~80mb, all depending on the length and quality of the subscribers line. its no more complicated than that. translating and selling that as averages will be confusing and misleading and either force ISP’s to restrict who they sell to so their stats aren’t impacted or provide incentives for ISP’s to upsell consumers to faster services that consumers don’t want or don’t want to pay for. For example those on fast lines may be discouraged from buying slow services so the ISP’s can bulk up their fast line stats.

      the access speeds are already clearly defined and known, more education of the general public is needed. Maybe OFCOM should run their own ads excplaining to consumers how it works.

      if your line supports it you will get upto the max for that service you subscribe to, put the onous on the ISP’s to ensure the customers are not paying for more than the line can support.

    • DTMark

      “Its super easy to understand that adsl goes upto 8mb, adsl2 goes upto 20mb and vdsl can be upto ~50mb or ~80mb, all depending on the length and quality of the subscribers line”

      Disagree completely.

      “Up to 20Meg” = a service which will deliver 20Meg some or all of the time. That is what most people will interpret this as and I can well understand why that is so.

      Why should the subscriber have to take into account the metal, gauge and length of the phone line and “bear this in mind”? Those are aspects peculiar to DSL based connections only. Why should the customer “have to understand the technology?” – they are not network engineers.

      If they were, this issue might not be being discussed and we wouldn’t have a third of people (on that Watchdog programme) complaining to the ISP about poor speeds. That is a shocking statistic.

      This is then further obfuscated by allowing VDSL to be called “fibre” when it is nothing of the sort. If it were “fibre” then those factors would not be relevant.

      This doesn’t really matter with cable (that it is not fibre) anywhere near so much as it matters with phone line based delivery, though even that should not be called “fibre”, because it isn’t.

      Likewise, it’s easy to say that the UK’s performance stats are dragged down because some don’t upgrade from ADSL2+ to VDSL where it is available. If the customer thinks, as many do, that they have 20Meg already, that is enough. They don’t need 80Meg. Which they’re rarely going to get anyway.

      When the industry struggles to sell VDSL, and then to sell fibre that is actually fibre, it has only itself to blame for gaming the customer by stretching the truth.

    • Chris P

      @DT
      Correct that the public aren’t expected to be technical but everyone should understand how this works as it’s quite simple and explained in 1 line. If they can’t understand that then other methods will be more confusing and misleading.

      The service is upto x, x depends on what the individual line supports. Customer us told what the line supports at time if enquiry.

      All providers over openreach will have the same limitations. Advertising averages will make different providers seem better than others ver the same line which will not be the case. I.e a provider specialising in only vdsl2 with customers within 10% of current max boundaries will look much better than any of the big 4, would likely charge more because their average is better but the reality is the individual line will only support what it supports regardless of the providers average or minimum. I’ve a computer sciences degree so am fairly Technical but would be completely confused by minimum or average speeds advertised by a provider when All i want to know is who can provide the cheapest bb for my home, knowing they all go over the same openreach line.

      It’s like buying gas or electric based on average call centre wait times rather than price.

      The only obfuscation is asa letting VM advertise their coax network as fibre, this forced everyone else dependent on openreach to advertise their fttc as fibre too as its conceptually similar to vm’s deployment methodology.

  3. Ethel Prunehat

    The conclusion I would draw from this research is that trying to distil the performance of a broadband connection into a single number is futile, misleading and apt to be gamed.
    A proper evaluation of a provider can only be made with a basket of statistics covering things like peak-time congestion, packet loss, fault resolution times, customer churn, complaints to the regulator per 100k customers and maybe even some stats from technically proficient third parties who deliver services to the typical broadband user, eg Netflix or the BBC.
    Unfortunately the man on the street is too stupid to understand much of the above, so a single number is likely what we’ll end up with. The idiots can stay with Talktalk, BT, etc, and people who care sufficiently can pay more and use AAISP, Zen, etc.

  4. Tom

    what I don’t like is that I pay the same price for my service that runs at 2 mbps when someone over the road pays the same and gets 17mbps.

    ISPs should be allowed to claim back a rebate from openreach so that this can then be fed back to the customers in this situation as a price drop to account for the negative rate adaption due to the installed long line by openreach.

    This in turn will end up with openreach realising exactly how many users get a slow service and hope fully push them to sort it out because as we all know the UK is seriously far behind the rest of the world in terms of its dsl infrastructure.

    • TheFacts

      @Tom – seriously behind? How much should this rebate be? £1?

    • craski

      @Tom
      I dont know the answer to it but I agree that it is very frustrating. I think the explanation provided on various forums is two-fold in that 1) you pay to access a service, not for a headline speed and 2) a slow connection consumes a port on the DSLAM that could in theory provide a faster connection so why should Openreach charge less for it?

    • Chris P

      @Craski
      Exactly

  5. Data Analysis

    Minimum speed claim would also be my choice if rules get changed. No more of that nonsense Upto 76Mb lark.

    • TheFacts

      If you were an ISP how would you market a DSL product to your potential customers?

    • DTMark

      Imagine that two measures were used and both had to be quoted. So something like (down/up)

      CABLE

      Standard

      Minimum guaranteed speed: None/None
      Maximum possible speed: 300Mbps/30Mbps

      Premium

      Minimum guaranteed speed: 50Mbps/30Mbps
      Maximum possible speed: 2Gbps/200Mbps

      VDSL

      Minimum guaranteed speed: 2Mbps/0.5Mbps
      Maximum possible speed: Depends on location and other factors/Depends

      G.FAST

      Minimum guaranteed speed: 10Mbps/2Mbps
      Maximum possible speed: Depends on location and other factors/Depends

      .. of course, BT could opt to take it deeper into the network.

      FIBRE

      Standard

      Minimum guaranteed speed: 50Mbps/50Mbps
      Maximum possible speed: 10Gbps/10Gbps

      Premium

      Minimum guaranteed speed: 150Mbps/150Mbps
      Maximum possible speed: 10Gbps/10Gbps

      Something like that, anyway.

    • Gordon

      “Minimum speed claim would also be my choice if rules get changed. No more of that nonsense Upto 76Mb lark.”

      AGREED 110%

      “If you were an ISP how would you market a DSL product to your potential customers?”

      We do not advertise any “UPTO” fantasy figure. For our VDSL, when you click on the product you are taken to a page to enter your phone number.

      We then quote the LOW impacted figure rounded to the nearest decimal place from https://www.btwholesale.com/adslchecker (EG if that reports 51.4Mb we would quote 51Mb). We then clearly explain that is the minimum your connection should run at. People actually seem to like the approach as our business has grown considerably this year. We no longer sell ADSL and when we did even for an ADSL2+ property the maximum we would every quote was 8Mb not fantasy 17+Mb guff which only a tiny percent get.

      Other ISPs also take a similar approach to a point and do not quote UPTO 76Mb on their products anywhere but you have to enter details to get a speed quote, most though unfortunately still keep quoting the MAXIMUM (IE everything has to be perfect) speed from BTs database.

      I spose being a small player its easier for us to be honest to potential customers as we are not in a speed race/must do better than the competition/say anything you can to make a sale game.

    • FibreFred

      I guess the main difference being Gordon you presumably don’t advertise on TV, in Magazines or on Billboards where the “enter your phone number” bit doesn’t work.

    • MikeW

      If you don’t specify maximum in an advert, how do people get an understanding of what cap is put in place? If I have a line that is perfectly capable of 120/40 speeds, how would I differentiate between adverts for products that would cap at 40/2, 40/10, 55/10, 80/20 from the speed that I know my line is naturally capable of?

    • DTMark

      The line here might be capable of anything between about 12 and 32 Meg, even BT doesn’t know.

      You can’t specify a maximum for DSL products because there is no common maximum. All you can put in the box is “location dependent” or “ask for quote”.

      If you want to know that you can, at least sometimes, get the “maximum”, then get cable.

      This is the main issue with DSL advertising. It is why all the approaches suggested, like the daft “10% can get”, the “average”, and “up to” are all equally meaningless at a national level.

      It’s not so much different from 3G/4G MBB in that respect.

    • Data Analysis

      “I guess the main difference being Gordon you presumably don’t advertise on TV, in Magazines or on Billboards where the “enter your phone number” bit doesn’t work.”

      The only REGULAR one of those 3 where BT advertise a speed is on TV adverts.

      None of their billboards certainly anything current i can think of or the posters on cabinets mention speed.

      Magazine/newspaper adverts vary but more often than not from what i have seen in the past year press adverts now are more about how great their hub is supposed to be, or special offers for reward cards or discounts for xx months.

      Gordon being a small ISP is unlikely to be advertising on TV, seeing as just a SINGLE advert can cost tens of thousands of pounds even more if you want more than 30 seconds per ad.

      So his advertising apart from unlikely using the most expensive medium and how he advertises in the other regards you mention is not so different, assuming he advertises at all.

      “If you don’t specify maximum in an advert, how do people get an understanding of what cap is put in place?”

      BT ads on cabinets only say “fibre broadband is here” do they not? No mention of speeds is there? No mention of speeds on BTs mobile billboards called vans either is there? Just “superfast fibre” tags from my memory.

    • Gordon

      We do very little advertising but when we do, whatever media we choose, a speed is never mentioned in the advert.

      We do not even call our product Fibre. We use its correct name VDSL.

      We do not use terms like “superfast” either as not everyone taking a VDSL product will achieve 24Mb or more be that with us or other ISPs.

      The only promotion we have ran this year was 10% discount per month for 12 months to business users that refereed us to others, we also gave the new sign up the 10% discount, that promotion we ran for 1 month only.

      Our residential packages have no 12+ month contracts unlike the majority of others. NO notice period is needed either. Businesses can depending on package also add this as an option.

      We only sell our products locally and our office is based locally, business customers can visit our premises directly if they need to for any support (one example they bought a router from us when they signed up, it dies and they do not a spare. They if they wish can bring it back to us in person that day and have it instantly replaced, no arguments or waiting on the postman). We may at some point try this for residential users also, but we will need more staff first as the residential subs far out number our business subs currently.

      We are new to the market, but in the approaching 1 year we have been trading we have approx 8,000 users. We consider that good but want to do better.

      We pride our self on serving our local area (the furthest customer lives only about 50 miles from our office, the closest business customer is next door… literally) and serving it as it should be, no off site call centres, no jumping through hoops trying to get support. Our ethos is simple. The customer is king and loyalty to a brand should be earned not expected.

      I trust that answers MikeW and Fibrefred queries both with regards to advertising and more info.

  6. mike

    How about advertising a minimum and maximum speed while drawing the customer’s attention to the ISP’s website where they can get a personalised estimate?

  7. dragoneast

    Prohibit speed claims. All that can advertised is “broadband”. All potential purchasers then rely on the personalised quote they receive before sign up. It would be necessary for quotes cover all the technologies available from the provider, so for instance for both ADSL and VDSL where appropriate. Then purchasers make an informed choice. If they don’t receive the minimum then they can cancel without penalty in the first 28 days of service.

    The present rules are designed to confuse, as are the amendments proposed. It won’t be done because it’d put the ASA and the marketing departments out of a job. And that is more important than any consumer protection.

    • Chris P

      How is any of that any different to what happens now?
      You can’t currently get bb without being told what your line is likely to support.

    • dragoneast

      Correct. It isn’t. With the exception that none of the ads could mention actual speeds. (The point discussed in the item, actually). To get a speed figure you’d have to get the quote for your line.

      Gives the punters one less thing to complain about.

  8. talkingtelephones

    The main problem with upto estimates are the figures usually reflect what 1% of customers can expect.
    They say upto 76mbps, fine, but to achieve that you would nee to be next door to the DSLAM and the only fibre connection through it.
    As soon as other subscribers are connected the DSLAM your speed will start to drop from cross-talk etc.
    99% of people have no idea how ADSL, ADSL2+ & VDSL works, they are 3km from the DSLAM cabinet on a line full of bridge-taps and aluminum cable then scream in disgust when the upto 76mbps connection is only able to get a stable 15mbps sync to the DSLAM.
    I think many more people are now educated regarding the limitation of high speed internet over antiquated copper loops monopolised by BT

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