Ofcom is today launching the second iteration of its Broadband Speeds Code of Practice. The voluntary code is designed to improve the way in which consumer broadband services are sold and supported, in particular by requiring broadband service providers, to provide consumers with accurate information about the speeds they should expect to receive, to offer support in dealing with speed problems, and giving consumers an option to terminate a service where the promised speeds are not achieved. This policy is part of the self-regulatory approach which seeks to improve standards of services on a voluntary basis, and thus only applies to service providers who have signed up to the code.
The code itself is based around eight principles such as training ISP staff, providing customers with accurate estimates, etc. and none of these have changed since the adoption of the original code in June 2008. The main changes in the latest draft revolve around how broadband providers give speed estimates to prospective customers and what needs to be included on their website. As previously, the Ofcom expects providers should "honour not only the letter but the full spirit of the code".
When an estimate is to be provided – Earlier this year, Ofcom carried out research in the form of a 'mystery shopping' exercise, which found that customers were not being given the estimated line speed early enough in the sales process. As part of the new code, broadband providers will need to ensure they give the 'access line speed' before asking the user for a MAC (migration authorization code) or any financial details, and ideally as soon as possible.
How the estimated line speed is calculated – The way the estimated access line speed is given will also change under the new code—Previously, service providers were expected to give a speed estimate, rounded to the nearest megabit-per-second (Mbps) or 0.5 Mbps if the estimate was under 4Mbps. This will now change such that consumers will be given a range based on the 20th and 80th percentile of 'similar' customers (i.e. the speed range achieved by customers, ignoring the top 20% and bottom 20% of speeds). ISPs can provide a single estimate rather than a range, if they can ensure that 60% of 'similar' customers will achieve this speed +/- 1Mbps.
Providers will need to ensure customers understand that the indicative speed is just an estimate, and that they should contact the provider if they find their actual speeds are significantly slower than the initial estimate.
Managing speed problems – A 'minimum guaranteed access line speed' should be defined as at least the 10th percentile of 'similar customers'. If speed falls below this, then the ISP must take steps to resolve the problem. If they cannot do so, then customers should be given the opportunity to leave the contract immediately and without penalty, if it's within the first three months of the service. This is a change from the previous policy which allowed customers to migrate onto a slower speed product if one was available.
ISP Websites – The new code requires ISPs to prominently display on their website, information on how to check access line speeds and actual throughput speeds that are being achieved, as well as how to improve speeds.
Fair Usage Policies & Traffic Shaping – Providers operating fair usage policies or traffic shaping systems will be expected to give details on how these may kick in, and what the effect on usage would be, such as any restrictions on speeds. Specifically, providers are expected to provide an indication of what level of usage would be likely to result in action being taken under a fair usage policy.
The new code is seeking to clarify the way the eight principles are interpreted in an effort to ensure consumers are provided with more accurate and useful information that helps them make better choices. It is quite understandable why Ofcom is trying to tighten up the code, however the changes make it even more complicated, creating yet another layer of bureaucracy, particularly for smaller service providers. We would have expected Ofcom to simplify the code itself, and provide additional explanatory notes which could assist providers in interpreting the code in a way which would be relevant and effective to the size of their business.
The code does acknowledge that the requirements of providing speed estimates are, for many service providers, tied to the information available from wholesale operators, and that Ofcom would need to work with the entire community to ensure that suitable estimated were provided all the way down the chain. However, in other ways, the code does not provide protection for service providers where the wholesale providers operate longer minimum contract terms, or indeed 'cease' charges which service providers are obliged to pay if a broadband connection is terminated (as opposed to migrated to another provider).
"The code imposes new requirements on the ISP, but not wholesalers, as it only applies to home users and not B2B contracts. At least one of our DSL wholesalers require at least three month minimum terms. Ofcom would require us to offer earlier termination whilst our contract would continue."Thomas Mangin, director, Exa Networks
"The use of percentiles means that the code is only sensible where 10% of lines are faulty and customers are not complaining. This is an active discouragement for any ISPs (such as us) doing and pro-active monitoring and contacting customers with problem lines. To follow the Ofcom code we need people with slow speeds to stay like that so that the 10th percentile stays sensibly low. This alone is reason not to sign up to the new code."Adrian Kennard, director, AAISP
AAISP is also critical that the code remains focussed on speed alone, which is only one part of the user's broadband experience. Whilst the company has chosen not to sign up to the new code, it has developed its own broadband speeds code to which it says it will adhere to, whilst Exa Networks continues to honour the previous version of the Ofcom code and will be publishing an updated version of its customer commitment on its website in due course.
The code retains ambiguous and conflicting definitions such as "access line speed" which it defines as the maximum speed of "the data connection between the broadband modem and the local exchange or cable head end" which would be the 'sync speed' in DSL for example, whereas they conclude that this speed "constitutes the maximum speed a consumer will be able to experience on his/her individual line" which in turn may be slower due to the IP profile set on the BRAS by automated line management systems.
The broadband industry has been advertising headline 'up to' speeds for many years now, and we support Ofcom's attempts to ensure consumers get the best information about the speeds they should expect on a particular service, but we feel that Ofcom have missed an opportunity to re-draft the code in 'plain english', making it more accessible to consumers, and to separately issue practical guidance in a format which the entire industry was able to easily adopt.
Broadband providers signing up to the new code will be required to implement the changes as soon as possible, but in any case within six months, ensuring that by February 2011, all those signed up today would be subject to the new rules.
A brief outline of the original broadband speeds code is available.