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Ofcom Clamps Down on Misleading Broadband Speeds as UK ISPs Shun Rules

Posted: 29th Mar, 2010 By: MarkJ
ofcom uk broadband ISP speedOfcom has today revealed that many UK ISPs are only meeting some aspects of its Code of Practice (CoP) on broadband speeds and failing in other areas. The regulator is now proposing to toughen up the code or possibly even enforce mandatory changes if providers fail to agree.

Under Ofcom’s current voluntary Code of Practice (CoP) on speed, which 95% of UK ISPs have already agreed to (CoP ISP List), UK broadband providers must agree to do the following:
* Provide consumers at the point of sale with an accurate estimate of the maximum speed that their line can support.

* Explain clearly and simply how technical factors may slow down speeds, while also offering help and advice to consumers to improve the situation at home.

* Offer an alternative package (if there is one) without any penalties, if the actual speed is a lot lower than the original estimate.

* Explain fair usage policies (FUP) clearly and alert consumers when they have been breached.
When Ofcom used fake consumers (Mystery Shoppers) to test compliance it found that 85% of callers were provided with an estimate of the maximum speed available on their broadband line before signing up with an ISP. However 42% of these shoppers had to prompt providers for their speed late in the sales process.

In addition, three quarters (74%) of mystery shoppers were not informed that their actual speed was likely to be below their maximum line speed. Ofcom also found that ISPs use different methods for calculating and presenting line speed estimates. Some ISPs even gave estimates in the form of a wide range (such as 10-20Mbps, exactly what Sky Broadband does for our line), which could lead customers to expect a much higher speed than they actually receive.
To address the shortfalls, Ofcom is going to:

•Work with ISPs to agree a consistent and accurate way of calculating and presenting access line speed information and amend the Code accordingly;

•Amend the Code to require ISPs to commit to giving the access line speed estimate early in the sales process, i.e. before asking the customer for bank details or a MAC. Currently the Code only requires ISPs to give this information before completion of the sales process.

•Find ways of ensuring that ISPs give consumers better information on why and how actual broadband speeds may be lower than headline speeds.

•Explore with ISPs whether it would be appropriate to add a new provision in Code which allows customers to leave their contract period without penalty if the access line speed received in practice is significantly below the estimate given at the time of signing up.
We're please to see that the option of 'leaving a contract without penalty' is back in after having previously been dropped from the original code. Many people felt that excluding this clause made Ofcom's original CoP weak and allowed ISPs to trap customers in long contracts even when their service levels were appalling.

However ISPs with Fair Usage Policies (FUP) and Traffic Management are likely to argue that broadband speed, outside of physical limitations (line length etc.), must vary for the service to be economically sustainable (e.g. especially at peak periods). Broadband is a shared "Best Efforts" product and other issues, such as home wiring problems and local interference, can also cause problems which ISPs would be unable to account for.

Ofcom Chief Executive, Ed Richards, said:

"Consumers are now receiving more accurate information at the point of sale about their broadband service. But our mystery shopping research reveals there is still significant further progress to be made, particularly in relation to the checkers used to calculate line speeds.

We will work with the internet service providers to ensure consumers receive the best quality information and amend the existing Code accordingly. We will continue to monitor and assess performance against the Code in the coming months."

Ofcom has recently commissioned a second round of broadband speeds research and is planning to publish the first findings from this round of research in July 2010, and every six months thereafter. Similarly the regulator "expects" to be able to agree changes to the CoP by summer 2010.

Sadly the regulator has refused to divulge the full results of its study, which would have assisted consumers in making their choice of ISP. Ofcom has said that it will conduct a similar study of providers in the future to test compliance with any changes it may present this summer.
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