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Ofcom: The little regulator that couldn't

Posted By TelecomTV One , 28 July 2010 | 1 Comments | (0)
Tags: Regulation ISPs Internet Broadband

Here we go again. The UK telecoms and media watchdog Ofcom has once again dutifully trotted out the far from news that ISPs in Britain are conning their customers by claiming broadband access speeds that, in practice, bear little or no relation to reality. It might be an idea for the regulator to stop regurgitating the same old cud and use its powers to do something to stop the misrepresentations and rip-offs. Martyn Warwick reports.

British broadband subscribers are only too well aware that the speeds of access they get are way, way below what the ISPs promise in their advertising guff - and still the providers get away with it. And if the regulator is a watchdog it's a lazy, rubber-toothed, ineffective lump dozing in the sun in the summer and before the fire in the winter whilst emitting the occasional contented snuffle and waiting for its dinner. A sinecure it is, a pitbull it ain't.

Yesterday Ofcom once more published data showing that not only does the gap between the so-called "headline" broadband access speeds advertised and what subscribers actually get still exist, but also that thay have increased markedly over the past 12 months.

In its report for 2009, Ofcom data showed that users are being fobbed-off with an average of 56 per cent of advertised headline speeds. In the new report comes the revelation that that chasm between hyperbole and harsh reality has widened. Users now get an average of just 46 per cent of the headline speeds advertised. This is nothing short of a national disgrace and scandal.

Ed Richards, the head of Ofcom says, "There is a very big difference between the headline services that are advertised and the actual speeds that are delivered." Thanks for that Mr. Ed. In response I am officially nominating you for the first prize in the UK's annual "Stating the Bleeding Obvious" Competition. Ofcom is already romping away as the frontrunner.

The UK government's "Broadband Britain" campaign is a joke. Promising the public a nationwide "universal" broadband access speed of 2 Mbps by 2012 lacked vision and ambition even when the scheme was first mooted back when Noah was a lad. We all know things move glacially slowly in the white-heat of the British technological revolution but to put back the date of the broadband marvel by three years to 2015 (as was recently announced) serves only to add insult to injury.

The UK currently has some 2 million "broadband" homes: i.e. those that can get access to 2 Mbps "or more". You lucky people. Britain has a population of 60 million and has 24 million households. Yup, we're the broadband society alright. What a truly pathetic joke.

The demand for broadband is rocketing ahead the world over. People want more and more of it to take advantage of being able to watch TV on a PC, to play collaborative games online, to share connectivity between computers, to download video content and to use all the other beguiling services and applications ISPs are offering - even though there isn't sufficient bandwidth available for people to run them all properly.

But ISPs continue to advertise faster and faster services with speeds of "up to" this, that and the other, in the full and cynical knowledge that almost no-one will ever be able to achieve those speeds - unless they live next door to an exchange and decide to play an online game at three a.m on Leap Year morning - the 29th of February - that comes around every four years.

The only ISP delivering anything close to advertised headline speeds is Virgin Media - and that's because it's a cable company.

I have to declare an interest here as I have been a Virgin Media broadband customer for ten years now (it was Blueyonder back then of course). When Virgin's service started it fell over constantly, was often completely down for days on end and was a pain in the arse to use. However, over the years it has improved almost beyond measure and overall I am more than happy with the service.

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Nonetheless, I check my upload and download speeds every day and fast though my Virgin Media service is, it never, ever, reaches the headline speeds the company advertises - and Virgin Media is by far the best of a bad bunch.

As for the DSL providers, the likes of AOL, BT, O2, Orange, Sky and their ilk; their subscribers are lucky to get 6.5Mbps from a service advertised to be "up to" 20Mbps. Now, that would be acceptable if users were told that they'd actually get about 33 per cent of advertised headline speeds - but they are not told that although they pay top prices for services that claim to be "ultra-fast". The whole thing stinks.

And what has Ofcom done about this ongoing con? Well, every year it reports that things are getting worse. Thanks a lot. But now, galvinised into some sort of action at last (must be the rhubarb?), Ed Richards says the regulator is "thinking about" tightening up the rules relating to the advertising of broadband access services so that ISP will be able to promote a maximum headline speed if "at least some people" can actually get it.

"At least some people". For f***s sake! Who are these "at least" people? Ministers of State, Ministers of Religion, part-time vicar's mates, the maiden aunts of Ofcom clerks, lottery winners, ferret sexers, newt fanciers, salmon fishermen, Benedictine monks, brain surgeons. Coronation flag sellers, Zeppelin repair men? Give me (and us) a break. Don't think about doing something, bloody well do it.

Mr. Ed is also thinking of ensuring that broadband services advertising shows a "typical speed range" (presumably 0 to 2 Meg in under an hour, a bit like a horse and cart. Steptoe and Hercules lumbering along in the slow lane of the Information Superhighway) so that consumers have a "better idea" of what they will get in reality. Wonderful. There's progress for you.

The UK Advertising Standards Authority has the remit to ensure that ALL advertising in Britain is honest, decent, lawful and true. I wonder where that leaves the advertising done by the country's Internet Service Providers? I think we should be told.

Ofcom, meanwhile, is putting together a new "code of conduct" for the industry that would give consumers the right to cancel their broadband access contracts without penalty within three months of signing up for service if the speeds provided are significantly below what is promoted in advertising. What weasel words. How will subscribers know? How will they prove it? The reality is that they'll be caught up in the coils of obfuscatory ISP bureaucracy until they either roll over and submit or go mad in the process.



Once again, Ofcom is overly relying on the Internet access sector to regulate itself and do right by the consumer. You might as well stick a toddler in a cage full of hyenas and expect them to play together nicely.

Ofcom is a regulator with considerable powers. Is it too much to ask that it actually uses then to put an end to a practice and scandal that has been allowed to run on for far, far too long? Stupid question really - the answer is self-evident.

What is needed is a mandatory scheme with teeth. A list of clear and stringent penalties that are applied and seen to be applied, quickly and effectively when broadband advertising is proven to be a figment of an ISP's febrile imagination or an outright pack of lies. Hit these companies in their capacious pockets and do it time and time again until it really hurts and they learn.

And what do you think will be the chances of that? Yeah, me too. So, see you, same time, same place next year when we'll hear the same story, same lame excuses, the same feeble promises of action trotted out and not followed though and we'll experience the same inertia all over again.

 

Par for the course. Too little, too late - as usual.
 

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(1) 02 August 2010 15:10:14 by Amber Vassiliou

What this article doesn't mention is what is being done about the issues that are raised - both through the voluntary Code of Practice on broadband speeds, and through a review initiated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

DSL broadband speeds are often lower than advertised headline speeds as a result of line length and quality. Ofcom introduced a Voluntary Code of Practice on Broadband Speeds in 2008 which commits ISPs to tell customers the maximum speed available on their particular line. The issue is rather more complex than this article suggests because of the difficulties associated with accurately estimating line speeds - in particular, differences in the electrical environment - mean that different loops with the same line length / attenuation can deliver very different performances. The strengthened Code of Practice launched last week aims to ensure that consumers who do not achieve the speed estimate given at point of sale can leave their contracts if the speed they actually get is significantly below the estimate provided.

Nor does the article make clear that the ASA, and not Ofcom, is responsible for determining the rules on how broadband is advertised. Ofcom has made two suggestions to the ASA as part of its review of broadband speeds advertising. We have recommended that:
- Speeds should only be advertised if at least some consumers are actually able to achieve the advertised ‘up to’ speeds and
- Those who advertise according to “up to” speeds should include a “typical speed range” based on a standard currency to be developed, similar to those in other industries (for example, APR in financial services, and MPG in motoring).

Amber Vassiliou, Communications Manager, Ofcom