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)|
|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.