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Consumers View UK Broadband ISP Market as Complex and Risky

Monday, October 21st, 2019 (8:27 am) - Score 1,998

Which? has conducted a detailed piece of qualitative research into consumer engagement within the UK’s broadband ISP market, which perhaps unsurprisingly found that 20% of people view the market as complex (more than any other sector) and 48% view switching packages as risky (again, more than any other sector).

The study itself – ‘Consumer Engagement with Broadband‘ – is based off a survey of 2,069 UK adults (conducted online by Populus between 4th and 6th September 2019), of whom 1,714 said they were responsible for making decisions about broadband. Sadly it’s quite a long, laborious read and as such we’re just going to summarise some of the key findings below.

Overall six key barriers to broadband engagement were identified. These relate to the confidence and ability of consumers to understand their needs and identify a relevant package, their knowledge of how pricing works in the market, their beliefs around the risk of making changes and their evaluation of their current service.

None of that will come as much of a surprise given all of the many different connection technologies (ADSL, FTTC, FTTP, DOCSIS HFC / FTTP, Wireless, Satellite etc.), underlying network platforms (Openreach, Virgin Media and masses of alternative networks) and consumer ISPs that exist in this market (c.200). Granted life is simpler if you only look at the largest 5-6 ISPs but even they have a lot of differences to consider.


In particular many consumers were found to lack awareness of what alternatives may be available with their current provider, or have concerns about contacting them. Some 44% of those who never or hardly ever made changes to their contract agreed that they don’t receive deals from their provider that seem relevant to them.

Meanwhile 42% said that they think their ISP will try to “oversell” them if they call them to talk about a new deal (see our Retention Tips guide). Overall the report goes on to identify a handful of important lessons that the industry, regulator and others should take away from the findings of this research.

Five Important Lessons for the Industry

1. When designing new interventions to foster consumer engagement (such as data portability initatives), they must take a consumer-centric approach and the design must be informed by rigorous ex ante consumer testing. We welcome Ofcom’s recent proposals to require ISP to take part in trials in relation to measures which seek to address how customers engage in the communications market.

2. In relation to solutions that have been already announced or implemented to foster engagement (e.g. end-of-contract notifications), it is essential that ex post evaluations and reviews are undertaken to understand whether the interventions are successfully delivering on their original aims.

3. The industry needs to reflect on whether current communications with consumers help ensure that they are on the right package for their needs. It must also consider the long-term impact of those communications on consumers’ trust in the industry and the resulting knockon effect on consumers’ willingness to engage to take advantage of better services delivered by investments in new technologies.

4. There is an opportunity for companies to offer more tangible incentives which resonate with consumers and which differentiate themselves from others in the market. Our research shows that current incentives, such as the promise of faster speeds from superfast, are only resonating with a small number of consumers.

5. Consumer groups, in conjunction with industry and Ofcom, must work together to help consumers better understand the broadband market and the benefits of engagement. This includes working to raise consumer expectations such that they are providing the right demand-side competitive pressure for companies to improve their services.

One issue we have is with no.4 above, not least since other studies we’ve seen have tended to show that demand for faster speeds, low prices and better reliability/quality remain key driving points for most consumers. Likewise any ISPs that create a wider variety of ways to differentiate themselves via new “tangible incentives” may ironically risk further confusing consumers by adding, rather than subtracting, complexity into the market.

Ultimately broadband is an aggressively competitive market and will thus perhaps always be unavoidably more complex and variable (performance) than that of linear utility suppliers, such as Water, Gas or Electricity. At the moment a big chunk of the market is also so focused upon building new networks that few have stopped to think about the additional confusion of choice that this will invariably create for consumers.

Over the longer-term we’d expect natural market consolidation to help reduce some of this complexity, although Ofcom may need to consider further changes in order to ensure smoother switching between the growing patchwork of different networks. Likewise we’d like the see Ofcom moving to ensure that basic coverage data is shared so that sites like ours can build coverage checkers with data from all of the networks (both big and small), not only those who are voluntarily willing to share.

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6 Responses
  1. Avatar Meadmodj says:

    The clear difference is that changing Electricity or Gas supplier is not invasive, does not require reconfiguring appliances all round the home and the supply is consistent. For most of the population if it works then don’t interfere. This is a direct result I think of the industry moving to ISP routers with the modem integrated and has progressively got worse as the customer expectation and ISP response is to be involved the WIFI too. For those of us that maintain a completely separate home network from any ISP influence can change/switch between our broadband providers without issue and many consumers are grateful for similar advice. So changing broadband provider can be very disruptive for many especially if they need to call on help. If it is tied top other services from Email to TV then even more reason not to change.

    As for the broadband itself most of us will be on DSL for years. Many consumers are aware or have learnt themselves that if you have a bad pair or on a long line not much will happen if you change ISPs and they simply do not believe the headline advertising any more.

    Currently unless you have a specific usage need or the cost hits an excessive trigger for that consumer then most will stay as they are. FTTP and the benefits of it are unlikely to be a major factor until it reaches significant coverage and then it will tip any then everyone will demand it.

  2. Avatar dubious says:

    Having recently moved to the UK and currently looking for an ISP I can relate to some of this. Trickier than it should be, including such suprising stuff like ISPs differing in what services I can get when I would have thought they all used the same openreach hardware and database?

    To narrow the field I immediately disregarded any ISP with a discount for the first year as they all seemed to be followed by a significant price hike, and while I’m sure you can ring up and get retentions to waive that, why would you support a company with that business model?

    Difficult to work out which ISP supplied router is actually any good, as in stable and featureful – the Sky and BT ones of family members are all horrendously nerfed for example (the SkyQ one is so naff it actually requires a reboot to add a DHCP static lease as if it’s 1996…) – so a cheaper service which requires user-provided equipment might be nice.

    Often difficult to dig into traffic management and data mining measures ISPs are taking.

    Many companies bundle rubbish, sorry, ‘add value’, with things like a year of streaming tv, a ‘smart’ speaker, voucher, or a data boost to a mobile service I don’t have – don’t want: just give me a cheaper option without any of the crud please.

    Many companies push double and triple-play bundles pretty hard too, so they can be moved down the list as presumably you’re lower priority for them if you only have one service and will get marketed at to move up.

    Virginmedia gets a double scummy here: their internet+phone package is cheaper than the internet only one, but then rockets up in price after a year to be comfortably more expensive, no-doubt relying on inertia to claw a bit more money out of their users.

    The other issue, which I understand is irrelevant to most consumers, was working out the technologies – how does DSL, FTTC, FTTC/N+G.fast, and proper FTTP map to the UK’s childish fast, superfast, ultrafast, superdoopermegafast type marketecture, as well as the rather lax controls on what is allowed to be called ‘fibre’.

    Anyway, if there’s a list of ISPs and local offices that would be useful as, since it’s all Openreach, I’d prefer to support a smaller local ISP rather than a big one’s shareholders. Well after AA of course, but I can’t get past (the comically low!) data caps in this day and age.

    1. Avatar Jacob says:

      Not all internet runs over Openreach. Virgin has it’s own network as does Gigaclear etc.

      Excluding all providers who have end of contract price jumps is cutting off your nose to spite your face. You’re basically too lazy to put a reminder in your calendar to recontract in two years so won’t take any deal that might benefit you now? If you want to buy internet today and never have to look at it ever again, then you are the disengaged customer than Ofcom has a problem with.

      Sky have said they’ll only do a £5 price jump and BT are introducing a cap as well so it’s not like the price will go up £20 like with Virgin.

      Regardless, in 2 years time you should be revisiting your broadband deal anyway because prices will have come down and new technologies will have been launched at the same price you’re paying now.

    2. Avatar spurple says:

      Or sign up to Zen and get a guaranteed price for life, and a pretty good Fritzbox router. No need to worry about reviewing until you actually feel the need to upgrade your service.

  3. Avatar Colin T says:

    The above applies if you can actually get fttc, where I live it is 1mb on the phone lines or fttp from BT only at rip off prices and extremely crap service. I ordered fttp on 28th of August and I am still waiting due to BT’s inability to do their job correctly. All other suppliers I could get it from want even higher prices. The rule live in a town not the peace of the countryside. BT pull your finger out.

    1. Avatar Jacob says:

      You say you could get “BT only at rip off prices” but then say you could get other suppliers at higher prices. So is it BT that’s the rip off price?

      Their ultrafast prices have come down recently as well. £40 isn’t that bad given it’s £30 for their entry level FTTC.

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