The difference between the actual and advertised broadband speeds has been a good staple for media coverage for some time now in the UK. In an attempt to help clarify things for consumers Ofcom
has published a voluntary Code of Practice governing broadband speeds. The code of practice tries to provide a
framework that providers can work within to provide users with information they can understand, although it is worth noting some providers already do so. The Code covers much more than just your
estimated connection speed--It goes so far as requiring providers to detail what services are affected by any traffic management/shaping.
While the code of practice is voluntary, Ofcom does assert that it will be monitoring the impact of the report and if voluntary measures do not improve matters they may intervene with formal
"As consumer demand for bandwidth-hungry applications increases, there has been a noticeable trend for some ISPs to advertise their products based on faster and faster headline speeds. However,
the evidence reviewed to date by Ofcom suggests that these speeds are rarely achievable by the consumers that buy them. This is caused by a number of factors, including the nature of the customer's
line, the capacity of ISPs' networks, the number of subscribers sharing the network, and the number of people accessing a particular website."
Broadband Speed Code of Practice
The Code does not apply to dedicated business products used primarily by business customers. All residential products are covered, but a small business buying one of these products will be covered
under the scope of the rules.
A very important area that can lead to consumers getting confused is the various speed figures involved with broadband. In the days of dial-up it was fairly easy as you saw the speed your modem
connected at pop-up in the system tray and knew to wait for each web page to open. Now, you will see speeds like 100Mbps and 54Mbps pop-up and some assume this is their broadband connection speed. If
using a USB ADSL modem (which are rapidly disappearing from the market), then you will often get a pop-up showing the connection speed, but with wireless or wired Ethernet connections to an ADSL
modem/router or cable modem the figures commonly seen in the system tray actually refer to the speed of the local network connection that links you to your broadband modem. Ofcom has defined four
categories for speed.
- Headline or advertised speed: Basically the big number you see in adverts, usually preceded by the words 'up to'; This is the theoretical maximum under optimum conditions.
- Access line speed: Speed of the data connection between broadband modem and first elements of the providers network. Usually expressed by hardware as Kbps (Kilo bits per second) and often
referred to as the sync or connection speed.
- Actual throughput speed: This is the what your computer reports as the speed when downloading files. Often reported in KB/sec (Kilo Bytes per second; 1 Byte = 8 bits, so 100KB/sec is
800Kbps). You can test this for example with our speed test tool
- Average throughput speed: An average of the above. We provided some average regional broadband
speeds recently to inform the debate.
The code contains eight core principles outlined below. Providers are expected to implement these within six months:
- Training: Providers will use best endeavours to ensure all representatives and agents involved in the sale or promotion of their service have sufficient understanding of the products for
- Information at time of sale: Many providers already provide estimates of access line speed. Those signed up to the Code are required to supply this when you sign-up. Customers should have
the speed made clear to them when signing up (over the phone or online), and that is is the estimated maximum access line speed. Explanations should also be provided to explain that throughput
speed will probably be lower than the access speed, depending on factors such as congestion or traffic management. A key point is that the provider should indicate the times of day when the network
is likely to be the most congested. Access line speeds are to be expressed in Mbps (Mega bits per second; commonly referred to as "meg") rounded to the nearest whole number apart from line speeds
below 4Mbps where 0.5Mbps steps should be used.
- Accuracy of information on access line speed: Providers should take reasonable steps to ensure access line speed estimates are as accurate as possible and updated to reflect changes or new
information on the line. Obviously many providers rely on the information from BT Wholesale and Openreach and Ofcom will work with the providers to address accuracy of information issues.
- Managing consumer expectations: Providers need to train their support staff to diagnose where the problem may lay if a customer complains of slow speeds. Simply always blaming a virus or
clearing cookies will not suffice any more. Once it has been determined that the access line speed cannot be improved to a figure closer to the original estimate, if a lower priced product is
available that might suit a users needs e.g. 1Mbps rather than an up to 8Meg service, the provider should allow the customer to regrade without any change of package penalty, as if this was the
package the customer initially order.
- Presentation of information on provider website: Providers need to use their best endeavours to lay out the required information in a manner that is clear to consumers. Most importantly
for many, criteria for falling foul of any fair use policy should be published. Where a provider has an email address for a customer and they've crossed a usage or fair use limit they should email
them, and consider emailing customers pro-actively as they approach the limit. Where a provider uses traffic management techniques they should publish clear information on the restrictions, covering
the types of applications, services and protocols affected and specify when peak periods are.
- Timescales: Where a provider signs up to the Code of Practice they will have a six month period in which to implement the various measures.
- Compliance monitoring: Ofcom will monitor the situation, and may use mystery shoppers to confirm that sign-up processes comply.
- Consumers awareness of providers adoption of the Code: Providers should make it clear to consumers when signing up that the provider is signed up to the Code and provide an easily
accessible link on their website.
The ten-page document contains much more detail. Hopefully it will help to address concerns of consumers and hopefully increase the understanding of the various products making comparisons easier.
In some of the worst cases currently some sales staff are known to say things like 'your minimum speed will be 6.5Mbps', when in reality the situation is that 6.5Mbps is what the maximum estimate for
your access line speed is.
This code of practice does not solve the problem of comparing providers overnight. Ofcom is also looking to have a base for testing 2,000 representative broadband connections providing
round-the-clock speed information for both regions and service providers.
The list of 32 providers who have initially signed up to this Code of Practice can be seen in full in here and Ofcom will update its
own website as more providers sign-up.