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New Ofcom Code of Practice for UK Broadband ISP Speeds to Start

Thursday, February 28th, 2019 (12:01 am) - Score 3,540
broadband uk isp speed discussion

An important change is due to be introduced tomorrow as part of Ofcom’s new Voluntary Codes of Practice on Broadband Speed (VCoP), which will require the largest UK ISPs to give you more information about your estimated line performance and make it easier to exit a contract penalty free (if faults cannot be fixed).

At present if you’re a customer of an ISP that supports the existing 2015 (residential) and 2016 (small businesses) code – See Ofcom’s Codes of Practice – then the provider must estimate (at the point of sale) the access line speeds that you’re likely to achieve at home. On top of that they must also try to resolve any problems when speeds fall significantly below the estimate.

The existing code thus ensures that consumers receive a “personal estimate” of their expected download speed during the sign-up process to a new ISP, which reflects the 20th and 80th percentile speeds to be provided (i.e. an estimated range of possible upper and lower download performance for your connection).

Providers must also supply, upon request, the Minimum Guaranteed Access Line Speed (MGALS) for your line (this reflects the slowest 10% of similar users). The MGALS level is important because ISPs that fail to resolve any significant speed problems (i.e. if your speed stays below the MGALS level) must offer customers the right to downgrade or exit their contract (penalty free).

The New 2019 Rules

Last year Ofcom announced that they had revised the rules so that they could be applied to a wider selection of ISPs and give consumers more information about their estimated connection performance. In short, the revised code requires ISPs to inform customers about their MGALS speed upfront (instead of on request), along with details about upload performance and the speeds that people can expect at peak times.

Key Changes

* The code has been expanded to include ultrafast Cable (Virgin Media) and “Full Fibre” (FTTP/H) broadband providers (it already covers copper ADSL and hybrid-fibre FTTC (VDSL2 or G.fast) based services).

* There is a key difference for Cable and Full Fibre providers, where speed degradation is not normally affected by the length of your line. For those ISPs the MGALS speed will be at least 50% of the advertised rate of the package instead of 10%. “This will protect those customers who receive speeds significantly below expectations, while still encouraging ISPs to invest in improving their networks,” said Ofcom.

* Estimates for upload speed must now be included, although the MGALS rule only applies to download performance (Ofcom promised to look at this again in the next review because “we did not consider that poor upload speeds were, in themselves, likely to affect most users’ experiences to the degree that a general right to exit was warranted at this stage“).

* The new code must reflect the impact of network contention during busy peak-times (8-10pm for residential customers and 12-2pm for businesses). Speeds may sometimes get a little slower during busy periods because more people are online and related connections need to share their network capacity between many users in order to be affordable (experiences vary between ISPs).

* Providers must now show the line’s MGALS download speed before sale (at present you only receive the MGALS figure upon request).

* Providers will be given 1 month to resolve a problem where the speed falls below the MGALS level and if they fail then the customer must be allowed to exit their contract, penalty free.

* In order to deliver a normally available speed estimate based on peak time performance, providers will now be required to test the actual speeds of a statistically meaningful panel of customers on each broadband package during peak time. As a result some ISPs may add special connection monitoring code to their bundled routers (e.g. BT are testing this) or use third-party kit to perform a similar task.

Last year Ofcom gave ISPs 12 months to adapt to the new code (here) and the changes will now begin to be enforced. Some providers, such as Virgin Media, are already prepared for the changes (they work with SamKnows to monitor end users via custom modified routers), but others have had to develop new router code and systems to handle it.

NOTE: Ofcom won’t actually begin testing ISP compliance with the new code until another 12 months have passed.

In general consumers should now expect to receive a performance prediction like the one pictured directly below, which will form part of your order process.

ofcom uk voluntary broadband speed code 2018

The new code is only applicable to ISPs that actually sign-up to it (voluntary) and at the time of writing the following broadband providers have already agreed to support Ofcom’s changes.

Current Signatory ISPs (2019 Code)
Virgin Media
BT
Sky Broadband
EE
TalkTalk
KCOM (Hull Area)
XLN Telecom
Plusnet
Daisy Group
Lothian Broadband

Readers will no doubt notice the absence of medium sized ISPs like Vodafone and Zen Internet, both of which are members of the original 2015 code, as well as the almost total lack of any smaller providers (except Lothian Broadband).

One of the reasons for this is because smaller ISPs have found the new approach to be very challenging, not least in terms of cost. In particular the requirement for ISPs to carry out speedtests, so as to create a normally available speed value, can be quite a difficult thing to introduce (some ISPs have been quoted hundreds of thousands to roll-out one such solution, which is unaffordable at the smaller end).

On this front Ofcom seems to overlook that not all ISPs bundle a broadband router with their packages and not all of those that do are able to modify the code in such an extensive way. Meanwhile many others lack the resources or access needed to modify the firmware of the kit they supply. The outcome could be that new entrants and smaller ISPs actually end up being discouraged from voluntarily joining Ofcom’s code.

However we have seen some companies, such as ASSIA (here), introduce new router-side systems that could make such monitoring more cost effective, but it remains to be seen how much support they will attract. On the other hand this could also give end-users a lot of useful information about their real connection performance, which would be most welcome.

Finally, consumers who suffer a problem and elect to exit their contract penalty free should be cautious. Simply swapping ISP may not resolve the problem if your issue is caused by the underlying physical network operator (e.g. Openreach) and you switch to another provider on the same infrastructure.

Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom’s Consumer Group Director, said:

“When you sign a contract, you should be treated fairly and know exactly what you’re getting.

These protections mean broadband shoppers can buy with confidence. Before they sign up, customers will be told their minimum internet speed. And if companies break that promise, they’ll have to sort it out quickly, or let the customer walk away.”

Finally, we should point out that some of the signatory ISPs only offer business connectivity. As such they have only signed-up “in principle” and “expect to be compliant shortly” (the business offering ISPs include BT, Daisy, TalkTalk, Virgin Media, KCOM and XLN, although obviously some of those are also members of the residential code too).

TIP: If you wish to conduct your own speedtest then remember to do it while nobody else is using the service and via a wired NOT WiFi connection to the router. Testing while on WiFi should be avoided because the often slower speeds of a wireless link can negatively impact your results. Buggy computers, firewall rules, anti-virus software, Smartphone based tests and web browser settings may also hurt the results.

UPDATE:

Just for context we’ve pasted some of the text from Ofcom’s related High-Level Testing Principles document, which sets out the requirements for how ISPs are supposed to conduct this sort of testing.

Test principles

Each panellist must have a unit capable of running the appropriate test software that can measure download and upload speeds received at the customer premises equipment (CPE). The ISP may run additional quality tests if they wish to do so, but for the purposes of the code measuring download and upload speeds will be sufficient.

The software must perform daily tests for each panellist during peak time (8-10pm for residential services, 12-2pm for business) and the quiet hour (the time at which the ISP expects the network traffic to be least contended). ISPs must ensure that tests are spread out across each of these periods.

To determine the maximum speed achieved on the panellist’s line, ISPs may test throughout the day rather than solely in the expected quiet hour.

The data used to calculate congestion must be updated at least quarterly, drawing on the previous three months’ speed measurements, although ISPs may update more frequently if they wish to do so.

The download and upload speed tests should not be run when user traffic is detected by the unit, as this could result in a negative impact on the performance experienced by the user, and may also compromise the test results.

To avoid detriment to panellists, the data used for the tests must not be included in the panellists’ data allowance (if any).

To assess the capacity of the user’s broadband connection, up to three concurrent transmission control protocol (TCP) connections must be used.

The download and upload tests will consist of downloading and uploading files over a duration of 5 seconds. The application layer protocol must be http 1.1 … The files to be used for the testing will be stored on an Ofcom webserver, from where the ISPs can retrieve them for use.

The document notes that ISPs with smaller customer bases (generally fewer than 20,000 per product) or narrow geographic coverage are told to discuss suitable alternative approaches with Ofcom, which may include sampling by technology, rather than by product.

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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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14 Responses
  1. Avatar CarlT

    MGALS of 50% is going to hurt some providers.

    Virgin Media have a minority of areas operating outside of this range, Vodafone’s Gigafast seems shaky, Hyperoptic have the odd building that may struggle.

    BT Wholesale providers may be in for fun, too. This requires hundreds of megabits of headroom on SVLANs.

    To sell a gigabit at the nominal 900Mb an operator needs to keep 450Mb available at all times throughout the network between customer and test server. That’s quite an ask.

  2. Avatar Spurple

    I hope that latency will be introduced as a metric in these measurements soon. For voice and interactive applications, it often matters more than speed above 1mbps.

  3. Avatar Neb

    So will all the large ISPs need to start touting upload speeds on their product pages and advertisements? What about comparison sites?

    • Avatar Neb

      Scrub the comparison site part irrelevant for this.

    • The Ofcom code is not about general advertising, it’s about the personal estimate that you get for your specific line during the sign-up process. So yes they will have to show estimated upload speeds on those and many already do.

  4. Avatar dave

    Ofcom aint very bright like ofgem absolute useless

  5. Avatar Brian

    It’s worth knowing as well that the contract opt-out offer if the speed isn’t met after a month also is offered for a TV service, if it was purchased on the same day.

  6. Avatar Stephen Wakeman

    All well and good I guess but it’s a voluntary code of practice, meaning that no ISP has to sign up to it.

    Codes of practice are of questionable value if the only incentive for the company is that it looks good to prospective customers. Unless mandated they can harp on all they like about protecting customers and having realistic expectations when signing a contract. If that all hinges on the ISP having elected to sign up to something then it’s tough if they haven’t. Another waste of time.

  7. Avatar dragoneast

    In my experience all this stuff is mere PR guff to normal people (which doesn’t include the fanatics that populate these and TB forums).

    I have a longstanding [normal, average] VDSL2 (FTTC) connection without faults according to the illumini’s worshipped ISP – IDNet. It produces an estimated “superfast” speed between 38 and 58 Mbps with a minimum guaranteed connection in the region of 30Mbps, decent for the 720m from the Cabinet reported according to my decent router (Fritz! 7490) which gives me the lower attainable figure.

    What speeds do I actually consistently obtain whenever I’ve tested on a wired connection, and whether it’s the BTw tester, TBB or anything else: 8-12 Mbps, and as low as 2Mbps, and the experience of buffering with streaming and even browsing supports this. It’s worse than the 3.5Mbps ADSL I had almost 20 years ago! Latency doubles and packet loss appears for months on end on a regular 24-48 hours normal, 48+ hours bad cycle, with uncorrected errors regularly approaching 3000 per hour reported by the router. I’m on a “normal” suburban estate so nothing is untoward in either my dwelling or the locality. The experts don’t know what is going on and just tell me it’s as good as it is going to get and “there’s nowt to be done about it”. End of story. Changing ISP would change nothing, it could even be worse, it seems. I’m paying a premium price for this rubbish! (In fairness though uploads preform as expected though, consistently at 6-7Mbps.

    Welcome to the real world.

    Thank goodness my streaming is done over FM via the ancient smartphone, with the right apps (rooted latest Viper) to improve the music quality to something better than is ever achieved by modern digital streaming! Yes; imo those non-users that think broadband is crap are right! The old tech is far superior (and more reliable).

    Yes too, I can use the far better and consistent 4G mobile services – and do, but streaming on a smartphone screen can become a bit tiresome, or connecting it to the tv every time. Again, I acknowledge it doesn’t kill me to stick with conventional services, as our forebears did, before we all became spoilt kids.

    (Newsflash: It has never killed anyone to make do, though I can feel the SHOCK! HORROR! running through the thread to anyone reading!)

    Good; but why then are we as a country wasting all this money keeping broadband running and expanding it? As I say, in the real world and for most normal people, folks. But I suppose we wouldn’t have anything to write about then; and a shed load of us would be out of jobs, wouldn’t we?

    Sorry to upset your egos folks. I’ll let you all get back to your ego-building now!

  8. Avatar Christopher Smith

    Following a firmware update on NOW TV Hub Two yesterday, the router log reports that a VCOP agent starts each time the IP address lease is renewed.

  9. Avatar Gac2000

    Why has it taken so long. Why did they let companies get away with it for so long? Toothless regulators who don’t know how to control isps with the bugs ones behaving like Modern day racketeers. Need to disband Ofcom and start again. It’s too little and far too late. Just garbage. Sack the lot of them.

  10. Avatar Richard Young

    So now THANKS to Ofcom providers are REFUSING to provide me Standard copper line Broadband Services and deals as they say they can’t stand over speed advertised for my location (or many others I gather). Thus effectively forcing me onto much more expensive fibre contracts which I don’t need or want, costing £200 a year plus; plus extra for phone call ‘add-on’s (excessive LL phone call charges now mean you are also forced into an expensive add on if you want to avoid those costs which can be huge(people are likely be shocked if you look into some of the PAYG charges per minute now (or find out when they get their bill in future); there’s effectively no such thing as standard daytime / evening / w’end / international charges anymore (no consistency);(IRL from NI is now being considered and charged as ‘international’ where many providers treated as ‘standard’ rate over the previous years since the Good Friday Agreement – what are the politicians who lauded that saying now – oops of course there are none!). My current ‘standard’ BB works fine and speeds are OK most of the time and all the time for iPlayer. I’ve now had to consider not having Broadband at all but that’s just not viable now. As it is all the least expensive contracts or otherwise are around x3 – x4 the cost of when I first obtained. How’s that for technology (or Ofcom) making things less expensive! How’s that for inflation!

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