We want to try and refrain from saying Ofcom has published an "idiots' guide to traffic management", since referring to the general public as idiots is not a polite thing to do, but the short simple explanation published by Ofcom does treat the public as totally devoid of any understanding of technical terms, a bit like suggesting drivers don't need to understand speed limits or what 'mph' means.
Traffic management can be a highly complex subject, not one which can be simplified to the level where direct comparisons are easy for a number of reasons. It's a bit like some of the decisions made by Formula One teams on the optimum configuration for their cars. External factors such as the weather affect grip on tyres just as congestion on the broadband network affects our broadband speeds.
Consumers need Plain English guides to help understand the issues they need to consider when selecting a broadband provider, but this must be accurate and provide the consumer with meaningful skills necessary to make such decisions. Consumers looking for independent advice relating to their particular circumstances can get this from a range of sources including friends, independent technical advisors/IT consultants or other sources such as our website. Ofcom's endless desire to make a complex decision into an over-simplified numeric answer is sometimes unhelpful.
The public require a better understanding of the nature of congestion and how traffic shaping is designed to help deliver a better experience, and how it can be used to save on costs as well, which might negatively influence the user experience. It would seem more appropriate for a regulator to seek to explain the terms referred to in advertising/marketing messages.
Of course, we published a broadband speed guide quite some time ago, and would encourage you to read that.
What makes the publication of this Ofcom document somewhat odd at this time is that traffic management is on a downward trend recently as competition in the retail arena is fierce and changes to the rules applied by the Advertising Standards Authority since 2012 mean providers as keen to avoid usage limits and traffic management policies. Three of the major fixed-line providers now have no active traffic management, which accounts for some 70% of the UK broadband market.
Virgin Media with their cable broadband services are the largest provider to still have a complex system of triggers, levels and throttling, but there are rumours that this is due to be switched off in the near future too.
There is a 63 page long research document that Ofcom commissioned which includes data from workshops with the public; this guide is not a one-off and Ofcom is now asking the Broadband Stakeholder Group to consider this research and how improvements can be made to the current information given to the public.
One suggestion that we are struggling to comprehend with is 'use clear symbols to represent ‘yes,’ ‘no’ and ‘not applicable’ in the key information tables'; are the words yes, no and commonly used acronym n/a not clear enough?
We should point out that a few years ago we had been working on the idea of broadband labels that could then be used to make comparison easier across different providers' websites, but a combination of available resources and the ever evolving market meant any system would be rapidly out of date and the launch of the voluntary code of practice on broadband speeds helped matters somewhat. Also, it seemed very difficult to turn complex technical decisions that form traffic shaping into a simple measure. There is still scope for setting up typical utilisation profiles, and measure broadband services against that profile.
We will be going through the research in more depth and blog our comments in the next few days, but to give everyone something to consider, do you think that expressing fair usage or other limits in terms of the 'hours of streaming' allowed is clearer than the provider expressing the limit in Megabytes (MB) or Gigabytes (GB)? (for the less technically minded - here's a clue: the number of MB/GB one hour of streaming takes up will depend on the quality of the stream, which is often dynamically selected based on the performance of your broadband connection at the time. What came first, chicken or egg?)