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ASA publishes speed claim guidelines for broadband adverts
Thursday 29 September 2011 00:11:30 by Andrew Ferguson

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and Committee of Advertising Practice has published its guidelines on what broadband providers can claim in their adverts, no longer will people see figures like up to 16/20/24 Mbps in advertising, but rather smaller figures based on actual testing of the service. Providers have until April 2012 to bring their advertising into line with the new guidelines, mobile broadband data services are not required to toe the line totally, but endeavour to follow the spirit of the guidelines. Any marketing material must now only make a headline speed claim that at least 10% of customers can achieve, the effect on the figures in advertising are shown below.

Delivery Technology Current Claim (Mbps) Estimated new 10% claim (Mbps)
ADSL1 8 7
ADSL2+ 20/24 13
Cable 10 10
Cable 20 20
Cable 50 50
VDSL (FTTC from Openreach) 40 36

Of course what a provider uses in its advertising will depend on where they are advertising- advertising in the national press should be based on data from a representative data set for the whole country, but a regional advert should use regional based data. Providers are expected to be able to substantiate their speed claims, and are expected to review them roughly every six months. They should take account of four main factors, signal attenuation, congestion/contention, traffic/network management and protocol overheads. Additionally specific claims need to be backed up with data showing for example the service can stream HD video if this claim is made in the advertising material.

So the big change is that rather than advertising up to the connection speed, providers need to advertise what is possible for at least 10% of their customers in terms of what they may see if they use a speedtest site or measure actual downloads over their connection. Obviously individuals will see slower than the up to X Mbps in the advert, in fact some 90% will, so there is still plenty of scope for consumers to be confused.

The requirement to actually be able to provide data on speeds may result in smaller providers deciding to avoid advertising, or advertising in such a manner that speed is not even mentioned as the costs of profiling the speeds from the customer base would be eating into profit margins.

Another area the report looked into was that of "unlimited", and while there is some clarification it comes nowhere close to what some people have called for, i.e. banning the use of unlimited.

"Unlimited" are likely to be acceptable provided that:

  • The legitimate user incurs no additional charge or suspension of service as a consequence of exceeding any usage threshold associated with an FUP, traffic management policy or the like, and
  • Provider-imposed limitations that affect the speed or usage of the service are moderate only and are clearly explained in the marketing communication.

The element of the service to which the "unlimited" claim relates is a key consideration in this assessment.

  • A general claim, "Unlimited Broadband", for instance, will require a provider to demonstrate that their whole broadband service meets the criteria above.
  • A claim relating to a specific element (i.e. a defined activity or protocol) of a service, for instance, "unlimited web browsing", would only require the provider to show that element of service meets the criteria listed above. Broadband consumers are likely to assume that a claim related to "unlimited web browsing" will allow them unlimited use of the services such as You Tube, BBC iPlayer or another based streaming service. If an online activity like streaming is excluded from the "unlimited" aspect of the service this should be stated prominently.
Extracts from ASA report

So unlimited and traffic management remains, but the requirement is best summed up as being providers should be able to support their claims, and that any traffic management is not beyond what consumers would reasonably expect. What is reasonable is not defined in figures, but rather that any effects of traffic management should not be dissimilar to what people expect to be the performance difference between peak and off-peak times. So where providers are providing a web browsing experience of 6 Mbps at peak times and 10 Mbps off-peak, but streaming only runs at 256 Kbps at peak times then the limitation on streaming must be made clear in any advert claiming "unlimited". The lack of firm figures to guide providers, means as of April 2012 we can expect lots of adverts being challenged as the industry experiments with what is and is not allowed.

While the report does bring some clarity for consumers, the changes are not ground breaking. There is no absolute requirement for a provider to provide further breakdowns on speeds beyond the new headline figure in the main copy of an advert, but it is suggested they may want to.

For ADSL and ADSL2+ services the degradation of the signal over distance is by far the biggest factor with regards to speed and is well documented, thus one must wonder at the amount of time and effort that will effectively be used to measure this. Even with independent monitoring it is entirely feasible for providers to favour those protocols or the route to the test services, which may lead to customers complaining of not seeing real world results that match the advertised still.

"This is a much needed and long awaited victory for consumers. The new rules are a big step in the right direction and the greater transparency will ensure people can make more informed choices. ISPs will no longer be able to hide behind generic terms or catch-all claims which they simply cannot deliver. However there needs to be vigilant scrutiny to ensure this is genuinely applied to all marketing and that the spirit behind this demand for change is upheld, not the minimum necessary is done to be acceptable."

Jon James, Executive Director of Broadband at Virgin Media

Whilst we believe the changes are welcome, and will hopefully help to make more consumers aware that broadband is not always delivered using a fixed speed connection and aware of factors which a home owner has no control over (e.g. line length) have a big influence. These factors have been included in the footnotes for some years, and previous Ofcom guidelines have asked for customers to be given a personal speed estimate during the sign up process, but as yet we still see many people not understanding that up to 8 Mbps is a headline speed, whether a change to up to 7 Mbps will help in these cases is unclear.

It is possible that the more realistic speed claims for ADSL2+ services may push demand for FTTC, and we are sure Virgin Media is hoping to gain more customers, though in areas with congestion it may not fare so well. What no amount of speed testing and honesty in advertising can do is tell you what speeds you will get on your connection between two locations on the internet, or whether a connection that has perfect performance now, will be as good in two months time.


Posted by camieabz over 5 years ago
I want ADSL2+ though. Not FTTx (it's not as affordable to implement).

What of the smaller places getting ADSL2+ nowish, rather than putting them to the back of a ten-year fibre queue?

Posted by rtho782 over 5 years ago
I see a couple of risks here.

Lets say I'm an ISP, and I offer ADSL2+. I can now only advertise it as up to 13meg, so I may as well put a cap at 13meg to stop those pesky customers using too much expensive bandwidth.

Or, I can cherry pick customers. "Sorry, you are probably only going to get 4meg, We aren't going to provide a service".

Or, I can divide my product offering so slow people are on my "lite" package, and my headline package only contains 20meg+ users.

So, overall, kind of pointless.
Posted by GMAN99 over 5 years ago
What are the bets the VDSL sync rate is increased to say 45Mbps before next year to give them their 40 average :)

Its hard to know whether this helps or hinders, probably hinders in terms of new provision of ADSL/2 but to be fair its had its day anyway now.
Posted by AndrueC over 5 years ago
So now adverts won't even accurately reflect the technical limitations? Even people who understand the technology will struggle to work out what speed they might get since the quoted figures won't match any known xDSL tech.

But they allow ISPs to keep using 'unlimited'.

So basically - destroy the good bits and leave the bad bits?
Posted by herdwick over 5 years ago
@GMAN99 Openreach plan to double maximum speed next year to 80M.

I haven't read the actual ASA doc yet, but as ADSL1 will only ever give about 6800 on a speed test it can't be 7M as in the table above, surely ?

Similarly I would imagine at least 20% get full speed on FTTC so I wouldn't see why that should have a differential when cable has none ?
Posted by GMAN99 over 5 years ago
Oh yeah I know they plan to double it but at the moment I'm not sure if that will be a new package or a free upgrade.

I think the table above are TBB's estimates?
Posted by andrew (Favicon staff member) over 5 years ago
If you graph our speedtest results you do see a number getting just above 7Meg, and note the chart is estimates. ISPs are expected to substantiate, rather than just copy each other.

Cable connects at 33Meg on its 30Meg service for example, FTTC at 40Meg has about 3Meg of overheads.
Posted by undecidedadrian over 5 years ago
BT already cherry pick for Infinity at 15meg can we see an upping of that minimum then?

Lots of ISP's refuse to supply broadband to very long lines as it is and I can see them dropping a lot of those customers in favour of better headline speeds.

Game theory states that for any system of "rules" that people will try and work those rules to there best advantage.

We could see some real fun and games next year from the ISP's as they wiggle round this set of rules.
Posted by GMAN99 over 5 years ago
adrian that's not "cherry picking" cherry picking is choosing areas where expected take up is high whilst ignoring others. Its about putting a service out where its feasible to do so, why put FTTC into an area where it can't reach that minimum?

Oh yeah, advertisers are very creative I'm sure they'll find a way to work around this
Posted by andrew (Favicon staff member) over 5 years ago
On Infinity, BT Retail allows them to connect, just on a different product, speeds are not limited.

ISP's refusing on line length, only know of Be, who else is there?
Posted by themanstan over 5 years ago
Are ISPs allowed to be creative with their definition of network with this? Most ISPs LLU with ADSL2+, so could always state their network is 13 Mbps. The customers supplied through the "BT network" aren't counted as it's not really their network, just rented from BT with the crappy ADSL1?
Posted by andrew (Favicon staff member) over 5 years ago
If advertising a pure LLU service, then data from their network alone would be fine.

If offering a national including non-LLU then need to include data from all connections.

If a ADSL2+ can show 10% get 16Meg or more it can advertise with that number.
Posted by andrew (Favicon staff member) over 5 years ago
Small correction, figures are actually from BCAP, had not spotted original source at time of earlier comment.
Posted by GMAN99 over 5 years ago
Interesting that according to the BBC (Ofcom source) VM's 20Mbps package averages at 16.4 - 18.1Mbps yet under these new rules they'll still be able to advertise at 20Mbps because of the 10% rule?

Not exactly clean cut is it? Why don't the ASA just say you can only advertise the average speed and ensure its proven (via Ofcom) 10% means nothing, that 10% might be at the other end of the country to you?
Posted by andrew (Favicon staff member) over 5 years ago
CAP/ASA refer to the Ofcom testing, so will have had that data too.

Posted by herdwick over 5 years ago
On ADSL1 more than 10% of Entanet and Plusnet customers had the full 7150 IP profile a couple of years ago and hence the only change for that service with a 10% rule is to using the speedtest throughput rather than ATM sync rate so 6800 instead of 8128
Posted by neken over 5 years ago
So the factually correct 'Up to' figure is not allowed however the completely dishonest, misleading use of 'unlimited' is fine.

The ASA work for the consumer? Bizarre.
Posted by chrysalis over 5 years ago
10% is still very soft, but look at the drop on adsl2+ even with a generous 10%, shows how grossly missold that service was.
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