Broadband speed advertising is about to change - but how?

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I heard that broadband speeds are changing soon - is that true? Will this affect me and my internet at home?

Jude, via email

Well, broadband speeds themselves are staying the same - but as of 23 May 2018, there's been a big change in the way they're advertised. The upshot of it is this: broadband providers now tell you the average download speeds for their packages rather than the maximum 'up to' speed.

The idea is to make things more transparent for customers, and to give you a better idea of exactly what your internet will be like when you sign up with a provider. The broadband itself hasn't changed at all, we're pleased to report. It'll just be clearer to see what you're getting before you commit to a package.

Let's take a look at how it works in a bit more detail.

The old rules

Under the old rules, providers gave an 'up to' speed - as in, 'this package has download speeds up to 38Mb.' The speed they gave must have been achievable by at least 10% of subscribers to that package.

So, on 'up to 38Mb' broadband, 10% of people who can get that package will see speeds of 38Mb. A few will reach that; most ought to get at least around 20Mb and above; but some users will get speeds far, far below it too.

Without a line test on your specific property, it was just about impossible to know exactly which percentile you'll be in, especially if moving to a new home or switching to a different network. For example, 10% of people could maybe get 38Mb speeds, with the other 90% languishing at a measly 5Mb (that's an extreme example… but you get the idea).

The new rules

But that was the old way - here's how it works now. Under the ASA's new rules, broadband providers must give an 'average' speed instead - and it must be based on the download speed available to at least 50% of customers at peak time (8pm-10pm for residential lines).

So instead of saying 'download speeds up to 38Mb,' a package might say it has 'average download speeds of 34Mb.' If you sign up, there's a 50% chance you'll get the speed it says, rather than just a 10% chance. It's more accurate, in other words, and gives you a better idea of what life will be like with that particular internet.

The rules are detailed in all their glory on the ASA's website if you want to read more.

Ofcom has a new code of practice too

The ASA's rules are an excellent step, but Ofcom has also created a new code of practice (COP) for advertising broadband speeds to really make sure you aren't sold short. Agreeing to follow it is purely voluntary for now, though a number of big names say they're planning to adopt it - including BT, Sky, and Virgin Media.

Providers that sign up to the COP will have to give:

  • a realistic speed estimate for peak times
  • a guaranteed minimum download speed, and
  • the upload speeds you can expect.

All that info will need to be available for you to see before you buy the package, so you can see exactly what to expect before you sign up.

And here's the kicker: if your line speed falls below the guaranteed minimum that you're promised, you'll be entitled to leave your broadband contract without penalty. Once you've informed the provider that your speeds aren't up to scratch, and after it's done its own tests to confirm there's a problem, the provider will have 30 days to fix the issue - or you're allowed to leave.

It's worth mentioning that this refers to your line speed where it enters your home - not to the speed you get on, say, your laptop over Wi-Fi.

Along with the advertising rules, the code also adds a little extra protection. It'll apply to all kinds of broadband, whether it's standard ADSL, fibre optic, cable, G.fast, or something else; and if your speeds aren't good enough, you can exit the full contract even if it's bundled with home phone and TV.

You can read all the exciting details on Ofcom's website here.

This COP won't come into play for a while - not until 1 March 2019.

Who's on board?

Every provider's on board with the new 'average speed' advertising; they have to be. This means that you may see slower speeds advertised than before.

For example:

  • Sky Broadband was 'up to 17Mb', but now displays as 'average 10Mb download speed'.
  • BT Superfast Fibre Unlimited was 'up to 52Mb' (back when it was called BT Infinity), but now displays as 'average 50Mb download speed'.
  • TalkTalk Faster Fibre was 'up to 76Mb', but now displays as 'average 63Mb download speed'.

It's important to note that this applies entirely to advertising. Even though those are lower numbers, the service remains exactly as it was before, so there won't be any change to the speeds you actually get at home.

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