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Broadband Segregation Risk as ISPs Shun Slower Speed ADSL Lines

Saturday, July 20th, 2019 (12:01 am) - Score 9,942
slow as a snail uk network connection

A few years ago Sky Broadband became the first ISP to stop accepting orders from UK customers on lines – often rural ones – where speeds were stuck below 2Mbps (here). Sadly more providers appear to have joined this club of shunning those on slower lines, which for some may exasperate the feeling of digital exclusion.

At present well below 1% of premises across the United Kingdom are estimated to fall into the sub-2Mbps capability bracket and most of those are in remote rural areas, although there are a few that remain strangled by longer copper Exchange Only Lines (EOL) in dense urban areas too. In the majority of these cases people will find that the only fixed line service available to them is a slow copper ADSL service.

Suffice to say that life, in the digital connectivity sense, is already hard enough for this shrinking group of consumers and that’s before they find out that quite a few of the biggest broadband ISPs won’t serve them. In a few cases there is no real technical reason for this (i.e. the broadband would still work, albeit slowly and probably less reliably too as the signals degrade a lot over longer copper lines).

Over the past few weeks ISPreview.co.uk has received several reports from consumers who complain they live in sub-2Mbps or similar slow speed areas and have had order requests refused by several of the biggest broadband ISPs (seems to occur more with orders placed over the phone). As a result we thought it might be handy to give an overview of where the main providers all stand. The gripes tend to go a bit like this one..

Example Complaint from Rural Essex:

“My house contains a tenanted apartment, and my new tenant moved in at the beginning of June 2019. When she tried to arrange a new internet service provider she was told by every single one that, due to the low download speed in our area (under 1.5Mbps), they would not be able to provide an ISP service.

This is all due to Ofcom’s new code of practice which came into effect on March 1st 2019, and states that ISP’s must guarantee the minimum speeds that they advertise. As this is impossible for them to guarantee in our area, the ISP’s won’t offer any service at all.”

In fairness there are some known caveats to the “every single one” claim above. For example, Virgin Media’s separate cable network predominantly serves urban areas and where they do exist they normally deliver on their advertised speeds. In that sense Virgin is already out of the running as an option for the vast majority of sub-2Mbps or similar areas.

Meanwhile we already know Sky’s policy (see top) and elsewhere Vodafone scrapped their ADSL services a little while back. Today Vodafone only sells FTTC on Openreach’s network and they do so alongside a guaranteed minimum speed that starts from 25Mbps, while their FTTH network is tiny and limited to Cityfibre’s urban coverage.

NOTE: FTTC (VDSL2) technology on Openreach’s network is NOT usually sold at speeds below 2Mbps (less than this is considered a fault).

Out of the big ISPs that remain, the Post Office didn’t respond, while Plusnet denied that they shunned slower lines. A spokesperson told ISPreview.co.uk, “At Plusnet we believe in making things as fair and simple as possible, so customers are able to find out the speed they can expect when they sign-up. Being open at the point of sale gives our customers the choice on what they consider to be a minimum speed.”

The parent operator for Plusnet, BT, echoed their sibling: “We aim to make service as personal as possible. This includes making it clear to customers what speeds they can expect from BT at their address during the sign up process. This approach means that we do not reject broadband orders, as customers are well informed,” said a spokesperson. We assume EE follows this approach as they’re also part of BT.

By comparison TalkTalk said they aimed to provide all their customers with the “best possible experience … if a broadband line (ADSL) can only provide speeds of up to 6Mbps, we will only offer the customer a fibre service (where available) which will provide them with a faster, more reliable connection.” Put another way, hard luck if you live in an ADSL-only area and get sub-6Mbps.

TalkTalk’s position is particularly galling for those in this group because they have the largest fully unbundled (LLU) network by UK coverage after Sky and Vodafone, which makes them one of the cheapest alternative ADSL platforms to BT Wholesale based ISPs. All of this effectively makes it harder for those in such disadvantaged communities to get a cheaper service.

Why is this happening?

As above some of this change has to do with technological progress and a desire to move away from legacy networks. On the flip side Sky Broadband and TalkTalk have both claimed that it’s about ensuring a good experience for customers, although that’s questionable when the outcome is not to provide any service at all for fear that related users may be unhappy with it (problems streaming video, complaints etc.).

Another possibility is the impact of last year’s change by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which told broadband ISPs to only advertise “average” speeds on their packages (i.e. the median download speed available to at least 50% of customers at peak-time). Some feared that this might encourage providers to reject slower lines so as to make their advertised rates look more appealing.

Ofcom’s recently revised Broadband Speed Code of Practice has also come in for similar criticism. The code effectively made it easier to exit a contract penalty free, such as when your speed falls below the Minimum Guaranteed Access Line Speed (MGALS) for the line (this figure reflects the slowest 10% of similar lines and could potentially create issues for ISPs that serve those on super slow and unstable ADSL lines).

Extract from Ofcom’s Speed CoP on MGALs Performance

Some respondents, including Andrews and Arnold, Openreach, and a member of the public, were concerned that defining the minimum speed (to which the right to exit is attached) as the 10th percentile of similar xDSL lines could imply that such lines are faulty rather than just at the lower end of the statistical distribution.

This definition does not categorise the bottom 10% of lines as faulty. For some customers, a fault may put them below this speed threshold, but for others the normal performance of their line will naturally fall below this threshold and no improvements are possible.

We consider this measure to be a reasonable minimum speed that will trigger the right to exit for consumers who are experiencing low speeds in comparison to their normally available estimate.

On top of all that a little bit of feedback has suggested that a few ISPs allegedly told customers that the reason for rejecting their orders was due to the regulator’s new Automatic Compensation scheme, although we haven’t seen enough evidence to confirm this. The ACS system only applies to missed appointments, delays to new service provision and downtime that lasts longer than 2 working days.

Continued on Page 2..

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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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41 Responses
  1. Avatar Mike

    With 4G around you don’t need ADSL anymore.

    And why should ISP’s suffer due to the public voting for stupid policies?

    • Avatar MikeP

      Oh dear.

      Do you have any idea how universal 4G coverage is ??

      Hint: it isn’t.

      We’re in a valley. 3.5Km EO line, with careful tweaking of a Vigor 130 get 3.5Mbps download (via a decent ISP – IDNet). Three 4G is achievable (just) with a high-gain POE router on a mast, but have no idea how reliable that would be – especially as there’s two large tourist campsites that the base covers, and many a tree along the path. Questionable whether the time & money completing that installation would be worth it.

      This is the reality of many an order.

    • Avatar MikeP

      Whoops

      This is the reality of many a rural area.

    • Avatar Bob

      Those with poor fixed line broadband options will have poor options because of commercial viability of investing. For that same reason those people will typically also have poor mobile options.

      Ridiculous comment from a city dweller no doubt.

    • Avatar Darren Forster

      Assuming that 4G is ok to use instead of broadband is an extremely narrow minded approach without fully realising the problems faced with 4G are far greater than wired broadband.

      The other week I was working at Silverstone F1 and I had 4G on my phone – do you know how fast my internet was during the day? On my lunch break I couldn’t even do basic things like learn a language on DuoLingo without the system keep timing out, in the evening it was fine when everyone had gone home and I’d returned to our staff campsite, but whilst all the general public were trying to connect to the network there was no chance.

      So if you were to stick all these people on slow broadband lines onto 4G can you imagine what would happen? How many people would end up with even slower broadband than they already have.

      Where I live which is on the outskirts of Ludlow we have a limited broadband speed of about 5mbps as even though our exchange is on fibre we are apparently too far from the exchange (the exchange is about 2 miles away). I also have 4G on the phone too which you’d think would be much faster, but you try adding a couple of devices on to that and suddenly it gets real slow, really quickly – and a lot slower than just using the 5mbps connection, not to mention the amount of times it drops out.

      In addition to this there is restrictions on 4G too – according to our usage we use about 200Gb a month of data – now should we try and match that on 4G? Which mobile network do you know could offer 200Gb of data for the same price as a landline phone? GiffGaff have unlimited for £25 a month, however once you exceed 20Gb it then restricts the speed to a slower speed and stops tethering – so after 20Gb I’d be restricted to about 2mbps and just browsing on the phone – what good would that be? Especially as 20Gb is about the size of just one Xbox One game download – so with games pass I’d be limited to just one game a month if I tried to use 4G!

    • Avatar Mike

      Which provider were you using?

    • Avatar TomD

      4G is just about an option in the case mentioned here – but the signal is unreliable as well as weak. All the local masts are along the motorway half a mile away so I wonder if the 4G load can fluctuate significantly depending on the amount (and speed) of traffic?
      Or does traffic use of 4G actually have a minimal impact on service?

    • Avatar Mike

      Never had any issues when using an external antenna mounted in right place.

      I have heard rumours that masts reduce tx power under heavy loads to drop users.

  2. Avatar Welcome to Rural Ethnic Cleansing

    I believe this is basically how Ethnic Cleansing works, only killing rural ethnic broadband instead of people. Supported and encouraged by Ofcom and our government.

    @Mike: I get 8Mbit on 4G with an external antenna, which is much faster and cheaper than my adsl, it is also symmetrical. However 4G (where I am – rural) is terrible for working on and worse for gaming on. Even though the latency is around the same as the ADSL, there are frequent and unpredictable timeouts and latency spikes for no tracable reason. This leads to drop outs and disconnections on VPN connections, VOIP calls, meeting presentations, remote desktop sharing, and multiplayer games. It is great for everything else though – surfing the internet, watching online video, downloading the games/their updates. The ADSL although it is much slower has a reliable connection.

    • Avatar CarlT

      Or, as with many other utilities, it’s way more expensive to provide the services to rural areas over urban ones and the people providing the infrastructure can’t charge more for it in those areas than others so the business case is poor. That combined with regulation causes things like this to happen.

    • Avatar AnotherTim

      But many of those that provide a service in rural areas do charge more – many of the rural exchanges are Market A, where the costs are significantly higher. And those that do provide a service are often the smaller ISPs that charge more in the first place, even without the additional Market A surcharge.

  3. Avatar Mr Neutron

    It’s not just outside the capital where broadband speeds are poor – in Richmond, Surrey (where BT’s exchange is located) speeds are reasonable but a couple of miles closer to London in Kew they are appallingly slow. BT’s ‘solution’ to this problem is just to ‘upsell’ people in Kew to fibre (FTC).

    And let’s not forget that BT still has some aluminium line plant which is higher resistance than copper and is the kiss of death to ADSL.

  4. Avatar Dominic Davis-Foster

    I have long thought that Ofcom exists solely to further the interests of ISPs and not to protect the interests of customers. Seems to be the same here

    • Avatar Joe

      I can hear the ISPs laughing/crying over that suggestion. Ofcom has made life for ISPs harder by irrational and dysfunctional regulation.

      Hardly a shock if you punish ISPs for taking on the slowest and most unreliable lines that they think its a rational biz decision to stop providing such lines.

  5. Avatar John Holmes

    When I used ADSL the BT speed indicator said 2mb, I actually got 8mb as long as there were no faults on the line. Trying to get those Muppets at BT to look at the line when the 8mb became 6mb was hard until I started to keep graphs and then could prove 8mb. As It is I now use 4g and I am now BT free, worst company I have ever dealt with starting with when they install DACS on my line with no warning, it took 18 months for them to admit they had done it.

  6. Avatar NE555

    > BT’s ‘solution’ to this problem is just to ‘upsell’ people in Kew to fibre (FTC).

    What – you mean the solution to having a slow service is to provide them a fast, reliable service? How terrible!

    Of course ADSL will be bad if you are miles from the exchange where the equipment is located. The whole point of FTTC is to put the equipment closer to the end user. As for “upsell”, the cost difference these days is only a couple of quid a month.

    ISPs are shunning ADSL because it’s becoming a marginal product with fewer and fewer people opting for it, much as dialup was before it, but this is a good thing. ISPs selling ADSL on top of MPF/WLR are the major stumbling block to retiring the PSTN and ultimately the entire copper network. That problem solves itself if both customers and ISPs stop using ADSL. This does of course require realistic alternatives like FTTC and FTTP to be available to everyone.

  7. Avatar Gregory

    We are going from the ridiculous to the sublime at the moment we get 1.1mb one year we had 5 openreach enngineers out to us in the end I e-mailed the openreach CEO that gave prompt action the annoying thing is that our fibre cabinet is over 5km away 34 years ago I saw the fibre cable being installed 1km away, we are now getting soon a 1gbps fttp connection perhaps my talks with openreach helped

    • Avatar Joe

      34 yrs ago! Wow They must have built that fibre cab with the tech they found from the saucer at Roswell.

  8. Avatar MikeP

    This is (partly) the result of micro-managed regulation as you note with the Ofcom speed definition. Or, maybe, regulating what’s easy to regulate rather than what should be regulated.

    We see the same with the energy price cap. Its effect on the wholesale market has removed all but a couple of no-standing-charge retail tariffs, pushing up costs for very low users.

    Both effects were predicted by knowledgeable suppliers in their markets. And ignored by the regulators.

  9. Avatar Meadmodj

    Ofcom should ensure there is more awareness of the alternatives and the forthcoming USO. 4G could resolve issues for the majority of cases. Having now experimented with 4G Routers in the loft, external aerials and externally mounted PoE powered 4G Routers it is a sound solution for those within outdoor 4G areas.

    However they need to get the mobile operators coverage maps (and their own) to be more accurate and specific. I have just returned from a few days in Dorset Perbeck coast staying on a remote camping site only 6 miles from Weymouth. The coverage map inferred that there would be signal for O2, THREE and EE, but there wasn’t. Only EE could provide 4G data dropping to 3G intermittently and THREE could not even provide any service at certain times of the day.

    • Avatar Meadmodj

      Purbeck

    • Avatar Joe

      Prob find the coverage was there with an aerial. Its often just that sensitive.

    • Avatar Meadmodj

      Tried two different routers with paddle ariels in and out of van in middle of field. Didn’t take omni aerial with me.

    • Avatar AnotherTim

      The big problem with 4G (if you can get a signal) is that the achievable bandwidth drops quite noticeably as more people use it. I use to get a usable 4G connection, but as more neighbours have dropped ADSL for 4G (partly at my suggestion) the achievable rate has dropped by half on average (with Three on Band 20 with 5MHz channel).

  10. Avatar Jonny

    I think your interpretation of what TalkTalk said might be slightly off – to me it reads like if your ADSL speed estimate is below 6Mbps but they can offer you FTTC then they won’t let you order ADSL. If no FTTC is available they won’t stop you ordering FTTC.

  11. Avatar Brian Heslop

    I found when I was doing the rounds at end of contract, TalkTalk wouldn’t offer service. The ADSL checker only gives a extremely pessimistic up to 1Mbps, even though it has recorded a rate of 5.05Mbps, which is quite good for the 4km from the exchange.
    With this sort of thing happening, it would be very beneficial if speed estimates were more accurate.

    • Avatar John Holmes

      These figures are from BT wholesale who will end up doing the work if they are not achieved. So no incentive for them to use actual figures. I got 8mb on ADSL, 10mb on ADSL2 but the stated max speed was 2mb. I had to collect data by ADSL graphs generated by DSLstatus, once I had these as soon as an ISP support said 6mb was acceptable I could refute the statement and get an engineer to check the line. I am now BT free, old number is transferred to VOIP and using Three 4g for 50mb downloads, 40m/s ping, happy days.

    • Avatar AnotherTim

      In my area TalkTalk won’t even provide a phone line, let alone any type of broadband. TalkTalk “For Everyone” – I don;t think so!

  12. Avatar StillinDialUpTImesHereGLORIOUSENGLAND

    Get talktalk gfast package 150mbps for £28 per month. It’s a bit faster than dial up nowadays :)).

  13. Avatar Jigsy

    I’m on TalkTalk and get 1 Mbps…

    …and there’s virtually nothing I can do about it.

  14. Avatar Burble

    I’m with TalkTalk, wonder if they would have me if a new customer, ADSL 1.3, FTTC 4, and they can’t at present give me FTTP even though it’s on our pole.

  15. Avatar Dan K

    I live in the sticks. I had broadband of about 1mbps,which was good for my area. After I moved, my Internet was really dodgy if it approached 6mbps. I, like many others, had a lot of trouble with ADSL and phone on the copper lines. In my area, most of the lines have battery contact issues. It got to the point where BT had switched me onto the last cable, but it still hadn’t fixed anything.

    I’d been keeping an eye on the fttp roll out. Just as it looked like I should get it within about a month, it would be pushed back at least three months. Eventually I got it. I now get over 70mbps and could have higher if I needed it and was willing to pay. The speed is nice. It’s also rock solid, reliability wise. I am very fortunate.

    My mum lives just down the road and when hers works, it’s around 500kbps. I have a friend who lives locally who also only gets about the same. BT say they are too far from the exchange. But that doesn’t make any sense with fibre. Especially as a mile or so away there is fttp. My girlfriend’s mum lives near the town and she can’t get any kind of fibre either. Hers is not particularly reliable.

    Unfortunately, it’s as if BT stopped repairing the copper lines properly several years ago. It turned out that fibre is even cheaper to maintain that they’d expected. They knew it would be at least a but cheaper. If BT won’t roperly maintain the copper lines, then people in rural areas can’t even have ADSL. I hope they continue to roll out fttp, without leaving people out.

    • Avatar Guy Cashmore

      Similar here in West Devon, the copper infrastructure is getting less and less maintenance from BT/OR, for those still using it reliability is awful, many have switched to 4G now unlimited data is available, with less and less users, its a vicious downward spiral for copper around here.

      The only real question is when will the penny drop with BT/OR? The current infrastructure has no future at all, they either need to upgrade it or abandon it, no sane business can continue to subsidise huge parts of a network with almost no customers.

  16. Avatar Occasionally Factual

    Why would an ISP bother with ADSL lines now when the profit margin is approaching zero. I’ve seen too many complaints on other forums that combined line rental and ADSL for under £16 is much too expensive. So the complainers ring up and try for a better deal which costs the ISP money just for the phone call. You cannot make a viable business at this pricing level.

  17. Avatar Malcolm

    Now Broadband have been doing this for the last few years – I am with Sky (who own Now) and get about 5.5mb – Now won’t supply anyone in the area – it will be interesting to see what happens next year when the USO comes in – I can’t see the situation getting any better

  18. Avatar 125us

    This is a function of ISPs being ranked in tables according to the speed of their broadband. By far the easiest way to improve your ranking in that table is to decline service to customers who would reduce your mean.

  19. Avatar wont reach

    We (my community of 200 houses) only have access to EOL lines and we’re in South London, BT will only sign us up to a 2mb contract. Openreach have tried to extort us into using community funding to fix the issue with their ailing network. I’ve tried contacting my MP (who took it up with the Minister for digital and creative industries), the Mayors digital office and Ofcom but just get the same copy/paste answers.

    The USO rule changes are a joke and a slap in the face to the people being excluded from the fibre networks in this way. To sum up the USO rules – you can request faster then 11mb broadband, but if it costs more then £3400 Openreach don’t have to bother doing a thing. Who wrote these rules and why are they designed to protect OR and not consumers? It removes OFCOMs ability to act.

    4G is not an option in London as it is contention based – meaning it slows to a crawl at the times you actually need it, assuming you can access it at all. Imagine trying to run your households internet by tethering to your phone. My only option is a 4G router and it’s awful most of of the time but at least I don’t have to pay line rental to these crooks.

    There are technical solutions to EOL lines that OR are not talking about – the USO rules need to be changed to specifically not allow OR to extort money out of people they ignored while updating the exchanges. Without these changes they will continue to behave in a monopolistic and cartel like fashion.

    • Avatar Alec Broughton

      Similar situation here, all classic ADSL, with no option for alternatives. openReach say there are no planned upgrades on the roadmap, or in other words they are waiting for the USO so they don’t need to invest.

      I queried this with Ofcom recently based on similar concerns for my community. Ofcom told me that BT must assume 80% take up of ALL premises served by the exchange (who would benefit from the USO upgrade). the cost is then split across all of those premises. IF that number falls over £3,400 per property then it’s above the threshold and the premises MAY be asked to contribute. In the USO T&C’s Ofcom are allowing an overspend of 100% (up to £6,800) per property in real term costs, although that’s after a qualifying quote has been provided. The processed is triggered on the first request submission (from March 20, 2020)

      4G in our area only provides a 5Mbit connection, which is half the USO minimum. the only options in our area is a full fibre rollout, but our exchange doesn’t even support FTTP yet (or even have 21cn for alternatives)..

      Maybe Boris promise to delivery full fibre by 2025 will kick start some magic.

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