Virgin Media had a warning over some previous advertising in the middle of June 2008 and now has had another complaint investigated which has resulted in Virgin Media being told to make it clear in future adverts that download speeds may be restricted during peak hours.
The full adjudication can be read on the Advertising Standards Authority website. The issue of publishing file sizes in bits rather than Bytes is a fairly easy mistake to make, but one that should not make final advertising copy. The much more interesting aspect is that Virgin Media claimed a 30 minute TV show (341 MegaBytes in size) could be downloaded in under 26 minutes on the entry level 2Mbps (2 Mega bits per second) product. Unfortunately the advertising department forgot about the traffic management used by Virgin Media to keep usage down at peak times, which would mean that the 2Mbps customers would break the 300MB limit that exists for this basic product. The download would continue to work, but at a slower rate.
The actual traffic management used by Virgin Media now has different time and usage limits to what the adjudication mentions. The latest limits can be seen in our previous news items. The biggest change has been the implementation of a further metered period between 10am and 3pm, which means that between 10am and 8pm in the evening there is only one hour where downloads do not count towards a usage limit. The limits do reset after a five hour period, so that at least usage one day does not affect a whole week or month. One key point often overlooked is the speed that upstream speeds are capped at, which on Broadband M and L may start to impact on online gaming particularly if the game has a team speak component.
Advertising of broadband is a double edged sword, almost everything is telling us of the great things we can do with broadband, but once a household embraces services like catch-up TV over the Internet and online backup services they will rapidly find that advertising can fall short of expectation. This is not just with respect to Virgin Media, but a great swathe of providers- BT Total Broadband make use of traffic shaping systems that can see some applications running slow while others run at full speed. A handful of providers using traffic shaping do come clean about it and offer a great deal of information, but this is still rare.
There was a hope that the recent Ofcom voluntary code of practice for broadband providers would make a difference, but as yet we have seen no evidence of any changes from the providers. In theory providers signed up to the scheme should be emailing subscribers when traffic management practices kick in on their service - at which point it will become clearer whether the grand statements of figures like 1% only being affected by traffic management are real, or just a carefully massaged statistic.
Virgin Media generates more complaints from its customers over the usage limits because when on their cable network, you are tied to just Virgin Media as your provider, and moving back on to the twisted pair network of Openreach for broadband can be an expensive affair both in terms of time and money.
Unfortunately the increasing amount of traffic management and usage limits in broadband products in the UK does not look set to go away. The current economic climate is such that companies are looking at ways of cutting costs to keep retail prices competitive and generally bucking the normal inflationary trends. £50 back in 2000 bought you an unlimited 0.5Mbps connection which had a maximum potential monthly download usage of around 150GB if used flat out. In 2008 you could be getting 4Mbps for £10 a month, but with just a 1GB usage allowance. If willing to spend £50 then products with monthly usage figures of 150GB or more are available.
It will be interesting to see whether this latest ruling from the ASA will see further adjudications particularly against providers claiming unlimited usage which can have fair use policies that are more restrictive than some providers who have a published usage limit.