Which? responds on use of 'unlimited' claims'Unlimited' claims in phone and broadband adverts

01 March 2011

Which? responds to ASA 'unlimited' review

'Unlimited' should mean unlimited

Which? believes that providers should not use 'unlimited' claims in phone and broadband advertising where there are restrictions to usage.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) asked the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP), who write the Advertising Codes, to review the use of 'unlimited' claims in telecommunications advertising.

Which? has responded to the CAP and BCAP consultation and set out proposals on the use of 'unlimited' claims in the advertising of broadband and other telecommunications advertising, including mobile broadband and mobile phone calls, texts and internet usage. 

Which? response

Which? believes that providers should not be allowed to use 'unlimited' claims if the broadband package they are offering operates a fair usage policy (FUP) that places restrictions on usage above a certain level, such as additional charges, broadband speed throttling or cutting off access. 

Which? insists that words such as 'unlimited', 'limitless', 'unrestricted' or similar must be interpreted in the literal sense and their use limited to services where there are no restrictions to usage. Where restrictions operate this must be made clear to consumers up-front and not hidden in the small print. 

Which? agrees with CAP and BCAP's view that 'unlimited' claims are unacceptable if telecommunications providers operate a FUP that results in legitimate users incurring additional charges, capping or suspension of service or being forced into a different broadband package at a higher cost. 

Which? also objects to the use of the term 'unlimited' where broadband traffic management, and in particular throttling of speed, is used to restrict usage that exceeds FUPs. We base this on the fact that the term 'unlimited' suggests no limit in usage and no artificial interference with the performance of the service. Which? does not object to the use of traffic management as such, but believe that where it is used it should be made clear to consumers, and misleading terms such as 'unlimited' should not be used in the branding, marketing and description of the service in question.

See the full Which? consultation response on the use of 'unlimited' claims in telecoms advertising.

Which? and unlimited packages

At present, the ASA allows providers to advertise services as 'unlimited' when it is subject to a FUP, provided the existence of the policy is stated in the advertisement, and the policy is 'fair and reasonable'.

Which? has been concerned about the advertising of 'unlimited' services for some time. Our own research has shown that there is a lack of awareness about the existence of FUPs. In a Which? broadband survey, among those who had an 'unlimited' package, half did not know whether they had a FUP. Additionally, almost three quarters of the survey respondents agreed that the term 'unlimited' should mean unlimited. The survey was conducted in June and July 2010 and questioned around 9,500 online Which? panel members about their broadband service.

Given the low awareness about the meaning of FUPs, and conditions under which they apply, Which? believes that at present efforts by telecommunications providers to inform customers about FUPs and other limits are insufficient. Where usage is limited or traffic management policies apply this should be made clear to the consumer in the advertisement and at the start of the purchasing process. It should not be hidden in the small print.  

Which? broadband expert Ceri Stanaway says: 'Feedback we've received from consumers supports our view that consumers have an expectation that 'unlimited' should mean unlimited without 'ifs' and 'buts'. We also feel that limits are generally not well explained or are hidden away in terms and conditions. 

'The consumer outcry following the recent attempt by T-Mobile to change the fair usage policy of its 'unlimited' internet packages for existing smartphone customers shows that many consumers see fair usage policies as caps. 

'Which? wants to ensure that consumers are not being left feeling misled and shortchanged about the service they are signed up for and wants the ASA to take action to ensure this doesn't happen.'

Useful links

  • Which? broadband reviews - find out which providers Which? members rate most highly
  • Top tips and advice on how to find the best broadband deal
  • Have your say on unlimited advertising claims on Which? Conversation

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