Where is it? Brits get half the Internet access speed they pay for

Martyn Warwick
By Martyn Warwick

May 21, 2018

via Flickr ©  Wesley Fryer (CC BY-SA 2.0)

via Flickr © Wesley Fryer (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • Domestic Internet users "materially misled" by ISP ads
  • So économique avec la vérité that Baron Munchausen would blush
  • ISP ads will have to comply with new rules on May 23
  • But the changes are weak and watery

The UK is rightly renowned and reviled as the land of the shameless rip-off. From train fares to the cost of gas. electricity, water, cinema seats and the price of a pint, and in so many other aspects of daily life, Brits are routinely and cynically gouged and exploited and amongst the very worst of the exploiters are Internet Service Providers.

For many, many years now toothless and supine telco and advertising regulators have sat back and allowed ISPs to get away with claiming that UK households can routinely take advantage of wildly fanciful and downright in-you-face misleading claims about broadband access speeds that bear no relation whatsoever to reality.

It's a con and a disgrace and various authorities have, for no appreciable reason given the depth of feeling the exploitation fosters and the huge number of complaints subscribers make, time after time after time kicked the issue down the road and into the long grass in the hope that it will go away and be forgotten about. Well, it won't be.

The latest organisation to weigh-in to support the put-upon residential subscriber is the highly influential and long-established "Which", the brand name of the UK's Consumer Association. In a new report Which reveals that huge numbers of UK households get less than 50 per cent of the broadband access speeds they are paying for.

The Which report his highly pertinent and exquisitely timely. In two day's time (on May 23) the ISPs face a new legal hurdle. Thereafter the companies will be unable any longer to advertise and claim to provide ludicrously inflated "up to" access speeds unless that speed can be proved to be received by at least 50 per cent of the subscriber base. OK, it's not much of a hurdle and one that most providers will be able to negotiate easily enough with a quick Fred Astaire-like pirouette but it's better than a poke in the eye with a burnt stick.

Alex Neill, managing director of Home Services at Which commented, "This change in the rules is good news for customers who have been continuously let down by unrealistic adverts and broadband speeds that won't ever live up to expectations. We know that speed and reliability of service really matter to customers and we will be keeping a close eye on providers to make sure they follow these new rules and finally deliver the service that people pay for."

The new rules imposed by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) come after research showed that many domestic Internet subscribers had been "materially misled" by the speed claims trumpeted in ISP advertising. As things stand (and for the next 48 hours or so) the headline top "up to" speeds claimed by ISPs need apply in reality to just 10 per cent of customers. It has long been a cynical joke ruthlessly exploited by even more cynical service providers cocking a snook at regulators as they rake in the cash for services that cannot be provided at the speeds claimed.

And it must be said that although they are better than nothing the ASA'a rulings and recommendations are milque toast stuff - weak and watery pap. For example, it would be easy for ISPs to include meaningful speed checking facilities for domestic subscribers to access and use to determine when and if they are getting the speed of service they are paying for but all the advertising standards body has done is to recommend that such facilities "should be" promoted in advertising "wherever possible". Why the hell shouldn't it be possible? Of course it's possible. You write the ad and publish it. End of. All this does is give unscrupulous ISPs wriggle room to continue to overcharge for speeds they know full well they cannot provide to their total subscriber base. Pathetic.

Meanwhile, the Which report (based on a survey of 235,000 users of Consumer Association's own broadband speed checker app shows that subscribers on what ISP's claim to be a 38Mbps service actually received average speeds of 19Mbps, what is actually worse, given the blandishments and costs involved, consumers signed-up to so-called "super-fast" deals of up to 200Mbps were, on average getting just 52Mbps.

Fibre broadband that is nothing of the sort

And then there's the little matter of blatantly misleading advertising about "fibre broadband" connectivity. Far too many ISP's crow about their fibre-optic networks providing ultra-fast service to the home "at the speed of light" when the reality is that they operate a hybrid fibre and copper network and speeds drop to a miserably slow rate and reliability plummets when fibre-borne traffic hits ancient wires at the kerbside cabinet.

Unsurprisingly CityFibre, which describes itself as "the UK's largest alternative provider of wholesale fibre network infrastructure and the builder of Gigabit Cities" is one of very few service providers to have broken cover and publicly demanded that the ASA prohibit ISPs from using the term "fibre broadband" unless those ISPs can prove that the connection is fibre broadband throughout.

CityFibre's founder and CEO, Greg Mesch, said, "Although we welcome the new rules on advertising speeds coming into force, the ASA hasn't gone far enough to stop consumers from being misled by broadband adverts. The current rules do not distinguish how fibre and copper-based services are described, despite the experience they deliver being worlds apart. The advertising standards authority has allowed these 'Broadband' suppliers to get away with false claims for years knowing full well they were misleading the public. The toothless regulator Ofcom has done nothing to force suppliers to provide what they promise. I would wager less than 5 per cent of customers get what is advertised".

What's more, neither ISPs nor the regulators make serious mention of WiFi and the impact that has on access speeds. What Brits should have as a right under the terms of their contracts with service providers is a guaranteed minimum speed but there's a fat chance of that happening this side of the 2020s. At the moment, Ofcom, the flaneur par excellence among the boulevardiers that constitute the massed ranks of the European regulators, has long been working on something it calls "Residential and Business Voluntary Codes of Practice on Better Broadband Speeds Information". It will report back to a public agog with expectation by the end of March 2019. Par for the course and, as  usual, far too little, far too late.

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