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Vodafone’s UK ISP Broadband Speed Guarantee Ads Ruled Misleading

Wednesday, September 12th, 2018 (7:42 am) - Score 1,500
vodafone broadband martin freeman

A mix of consumer complaints, including one from rival ISP BT, has resulted in the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banning a website, radio and TV advert – featuring actor Martin Freeman – for Vodafone’s fixed line home broadband service after its “Ultimate Speed Guarantee” feature was found to be “misleading.”

At present Vodafone offers two FTTC (VDSL2) based home broadband packages: Superfast 1 (Average speed of 35Mbps) and Superfast 2 (Average speed of 63Mbps). Earlier this year they introduced a new “Ultimate Speed Guarantee” feature to these (here), which promised customers would benefit from a guaranteed minimum download speed (i.e. “sync speeds” to the router, not over wifi etc.) of 25Mbps (Superfast 1) and 55Mbps (Superfast 2).

In the event that Vodafone failed to achieve the stated minimum speeds then the ISP said customers would be given a 15% discount (once per month) until the issue is fixed. The promotion proved to be quite popular and was flanked by several big adverts, which included the one below where Martin Freedom’s online gaming session is interrupted by a buffering style ‘Connecting..‘ message. The others were similar.

Suffice to say that issues like the one depicted in Vodafone’s advert can also be caused by poor routing/peering or problems with the remote server itself, not only issues of service speed. Not to mention the fact that online video games are much more dependent upon upload speeds and latency, neither of which were covered by the ISP’s “Speed Guarantee“.

In the end nine people and BT complained that the adverts were “misleading“, while Vodafone disagreed and stated that the “TV and radio ads created a scenario that customers would understand to represent broadband speed and the relatable frustrations experienced.” The operator felt that their promotions “neither misled nor omitted material information.”

However, the ASA rightly noted that most consumers would NOT understand what the technical definition of “sync speed” was, or how it differed from throughput speed, and that the guarantee didn’t cover upload speeds etc. Sadly they didn’t directly mention latency but there is an implied association in part of the ruling.

ASA Ruling (REF: A18-444291)

We understood that sync speed referred to the maximum speed the router on any given connection was able to receive, and did not take into account factors including the traffic on the line. In contrast, the throughput speed factored in traffic and other limitations. We noted Vodafone’s comments that sync speed was chosen as a measurement as opposed to throughput speed because it was something that both they and Openreach were able to exert control over.

However, we considered that it was a less accurate measure of the speed that customers were likely to experience when using their devices in the home. We were concerned that any guarantee based on sync speeds, which were not an accurate measure of the speeds experienced by customers on their devices, was likely to result in some customers experiencing problems associated with slow speeds but still not qualifying for the guarantee.

Notwithstanding those concerns that sync speed was chosen as an appropriate measure, we understood that the majority of Vodafone’s customers received at least the speeds stated as the minimums required for the guarantee to be engaged, but a significant minority did not.

We were concerned that the ad promoted a speed guarantee when a significant number of customers were known to receive slower speeds at the router than what had been guaranteed. We were also concerned that the guarantee did not refer to upload speeds, which also had a bearing on the performance of home broadband when performing certain tasks, including online gaming (the scenario depicted in the ads).

Because the ads suggested that Vodafone could guarantee minimum speeds that were fast enough that customers did not experience common issues such as buffering when using their devices in the home to perform typical online activities, when customers did experience such issues but did not qualify for the guarantee, we concluded that the ads were misleading.

As usual the ASA banned the adverts and warned Vodafone to ensure that future promotions “did not mislead by stating or implying that their broadband ensured minimum speeds that were fast enough that customers did not experience common issues such as buffering when using their devices in the home to perform typical online activities, or that customers who experienced such issues would qualify for a reduction to their bill.”

The ruling helps to highlight how tricky it is to promote and support features like the one that Vodafone introduced. We don’t blame Vodafone for using “sync speed” as a measure because it’s very difficult to use “throughput speed,” particularly given how it can be affected by local network congestion, slow WiFi and other matters that are outside of the ISPs own control or network.

On the other hand, perhaps promoting a download guarantee alongside adverts for an upload / latency dependent internet service (online video games) wasn’t the brightest of approaches to take.

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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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