Providers say ‘unlimited’, customers say 'I wish'
Almost 90% of web users think adverts for broadband are misleading. With tougher new rules in place, can we be sure we're getting the speeds we expect?
New advertising rules came into force at the start of the month, stating that broadband providers should give customers realistic estimates of speed and can no longer describe broadband as "unlimited" where restrictions apply. There is certainly no shortage of customers feeling misled by claims of enormous "up to" speeds only to find they can barely get online at all, let alone make use of unlimited downloads or humongous usage limits, but are the new guidelines going to help?
What does "unlimited" broadband mean?
The main thrust of a broadband advert is usually a headline connection speed of "up to" so many megabits per second. But in today's competitive market, the promise of unlimited broadband is an additional means providers have of attracting new customers.
And to lots of customers it is very attractive, particularly those who download all their music, watch movies online or stream hours of catch-up TV with BBC iPlayer. Having unlimited internet means they can stream or download as much as they like with total peace of mind, instead of having to worry about usage limits or being slapped with extra charges when the monthly bill arrives.
In theory, that's unlimited broadband in a nutshell, but it's sometimes a little more complex than that. Some providers include a fair usage policy in their unlimited broadband contracts, meaning customers can still be penalised for making excessive use of their connection. The idea is to help prevent heavy downloaders from clogging up the network and slowing down other customers.
However, when signing contracts with broadband providers, not everyone will carefully inspect the small print. Those who don't are likely to feel misled when they're suddenly forced to reduce their usage or have their connection slowed down when the original offer was "unlimited" broadband.
How big is the problem?
Prior to the Sunday 1 April, 2012 deadline for the new Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) rules, a survey by Broadbandchoices.co.uk highlighted the frustration felt by broadband customers when it comes to claims made in adverts.
A poll of over 40,000 broadband users on their attitudes towards current advertising found that a huge proportion were disappointed; 89% said they feel broadband adverts are misleading, so it seems the new, stricter guidelines are better late than never.
How will the new guidelines change things?
Under the guidelines, drawn up by CAP and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BAP), broadband providers should no longer describe a service as "unlimited" if a customer could be charged extra or have their connection impeded for exceeding a set limit - doing this is known as traffic management.
This could see a greater number of "truly unlimited" broadband deals being launched. Some companies, including O2 (www.O2.co.uk) and Sky (www.Sky.com), already offer a genuinely unlimited service, meaning customers need never worry about breaching any restriction.
But where the new rules are likely to have a bigger impact is with advertised "up to" speeds, where providers give sometimes unrealistic estimates of speeds which customers should expect to enjoy.
What's wrong with an "up to" speed?
A promise of "up to XXMb" is normally the main thrust of a broadband providers advertising, and in many ways it's a useful measure to help customers compare broadband packages. However, as connection speeds often vary enormously from place to place, this kind of claim can be misleading.
Broadbandchoices.co.uk broadband expert Dominic Baliszewski explains: "Broadband advertising has until now focused on headline speeds that are optimistic at best and completely unrealistic at worst.
It is hardly surprising that consumers are unhappy when the 'Ferrari' they paid for turns out to be little faster than a moped. The advertising is misleading and consumers are waking up to this fact."
The latest Ofcom findings suggest that the average UK broadband speed is just 7.6Mb - that's quite a stark contrast with the advertised speeds of "up to 20Mb" that consumers see all the time.
How can we be sure what speed we're getting?
To find out what broadband speed you're actually getting, a free online speed tester gives an accurate reading in real-time that can really help customers clear things up.
When it comes to choosing an internet provider, by simply enquiring with them before signing up, it is normally possible to get a specific estimate of speeds available in your local area. This is all very helpful, but again it's usually the optimistic advertising that shouts the loudest by far.
This is exactly why, under the new advertising guidelines, an "up to" maximum speed claim needs to be based on the actual experience of users. Providers will need to demonstrate that the speeds promised in adverts can be achieved by at least 10% of those using the service.
An obvious question to arise from this is whether 10% is a reasonable proportion of users on which to base advertised speeds? Only time will tell how much difference this will make to the divide between what speeds providers advertise and what their customers actually get.
A fairer future for broadband customers?
The new rules being enforced by CAP and BCAP are definitely a step in the right direction, but do they go far enough? Will they ensure customers get what they actually think they're paying for?
Baliszewski concludes: "Customers need to be empowered to make an informed choice. This means access to accurate information regarding broadband speeds from the first advert they see. We'd like to see 'typical speeds' made the gold standard for broadband advertising in the same way banks use typical APR percentages, giving customers a much clearer picture of the kind of service they're likely to receive."
So, while consumers agree that broadband adverts are misleading, and providers are under increasing pressure to clarify and simplify their marketing, the new guidelines may not be sufficient to make things clearer - they could even add to the confusion. For more information on speed claims in broadband adverts, visit the CAP website.