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Broadband speed code needs tightening, says Ofcom

Broadband providers fall short of broadband code

Broadband connection cable

Broadband is fairly easy to install

Many broadband internet service providers are not living up to the spirit of the broadband speed code of practice, according to mystery shopping findings from broadband watchdog Ofcom.

Ofcom conducted more than 1,200 telephone and website shops late last year across a range of broadband internet service providers (ISPs). It found among other issues that 42% of shoppers had to prompt before they were given an estimate of the maximum speed their line could support, and 74% of shoppers were not informed that their actual speed was likely to be lower than this.

Both of these pieces of information are required under the voluntary broadband speed code that all major ISPs, including BT, Orange and Virgin Media, have signed up to.

Find out which broadband services rank highest for broadband speed satisfaction in the Which? broadband review.

Broadband speed put to the test

When Which? tested broadband speeds from leading broadband providers such as BT, TalkTalk and Orange in 2007, it found that customers in the trial who’d been promised broadband speeds of up to 8 megabits per second (Mbps) achieved only 2.7Mbps on average.

The Which? broadband speed findings were confirmed by Ofcom last year when its own test found that the speeds broadband customers received in practice were far short of advertised maximum ‘up to’ speeds.

Broadband speed limitations

Slow broadband speed and variations in broadband speed can have many causes, including:

  • How far your telephone wire has to stretch from the nearest telephone exchange – the longer the distance, the slower the possible line speed.
  • The number of people sharing your broadband connection.
  • The quality of your broadband equipment and wiring.
  • The time of day – broadband is likely to be slower at peak times when there are lots of people online.

For more on these plus top tips on how to increase your broadband speed, check out the Which? broadband speed guide.

Broadband speed code of practice

Following the disappointing findings in the Which? broadband speed test, Which? campaigned for clearer information about broadband speed.

As a result of the Which? broadband speed campaign, in late 2008 Ofcom published a voluntary code of practice on broadband speed. 

Broadband providers that are signed up to the code commit to giving prospective customers an accurate estimate of the maximum online speed that a broadband line can support; advice on all factors that can affect broadband speed; and advice that the actual broadband speed they’ll achieve is likely to be much lower than the maximum line speed.

Providers must also resolve technical issues to improve a customer’s internet speed and allow customers to downgrade to lower-speed broadband packages where available when initial estimates are inaccurate. 

Broadband speed advice not up to scratch

As well as poor advice on maximum line speeds and likely real broadband speeds received by many shoppers, Ofcom’s mystery shopping also found that ISPs use different methods for calculating and presenting maximum line speed information. This means that the estimate given by different providers for the same line can vary widely.

Some ISPs also often gave the estimate for the maximum line speed in the form of a wide range (for example 10Mbps-20Mbps) rather than a single figure. This could lead customers to expect a higher speed than is possible over their line.

Which? broadband expert Ceri Stanaway says: ‘Prospective broadband customers should always be given full, accurate and meaningful information about their potential broadband speed. Such important factors should be disclosed early on in any sales conversations so the customer has time to consider the implications and make an informed choice.

‘We’re also concerned that the current version of the code does not allow broadband customers to leave their service without penalty if they receive nowhere near the speed they were told their line could support.’

Improve or face regulation

Ofcom is proposing to tighten the voluntary broadband speed code so that prospective broadband customers are fully informed of all broadband speed limitations that apply to them before the point of sign up. It says this involves working with the ISPs to ensure they are able to give consistent and accurate information on line speeds.

Steps proposed include:

  • Working with ISPs to agree a consistent and accurate way of calculating and presenting maximum line speed.
  • Amendment of the code to require ISPs to give a customer their line speed estimate early on in the process and certainly before prompting and before the customer agrees to sign up. Currently the code only requires ISPs to give this information before the sale is completed.
  • Finding ways to ensure ISPs give customers better information on why and how broadband speeds may vary from the maximum line speed.
  • Considering the option of allowing customers to leave their contract period without penalty if their actual broadband speed is significantly below initial estimates.

The broadband watchdog expects to agree changes to the code by summer 2010 – if it cannot reach agreement with the ISPs, it will consider whether formal regulation is necessary.

If you have problems with your broadband provider, go through its official complaints procedure. If this does not resolve the issue, take your complaint to Otelo or Cisas – every ISP must belong to one of these dispute resolution services.

If you want any help complaining about your broadband provider or any other legal issues you have with products or services, join Which? Legal Service – for less than £5 a week expert Which? lawyers can offer telephone advice on anything from parking fines to cowboy builders.

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