CAP puts a stop to unlimited broadband fiction

The custodian of the Advertising Codes, the Committees of Advertising Practice, has announced the completion of an investigation into the use of the word 'unlimited' in terms of broadband and telephone services.

The consultation has seen both ISPs and industry groups including communications watchdog Ofcom and consumer rights organisation Which? offer up opinions on the matter following a request by the Advertising Standards Authority for clearer rules. It is expected to make broadband advertising significantly clearer for non-technical types.

In guidance published today, CAP warns advertisers that the word 'unlimited' can only be used if: "The user incurs no additional charge or suspension of service as a consequence of exceeding a usage threshold associated with a ‘fair usage policy’ (FUP), a traffic management policy or similar; and limitations that do affect the speed or usage of the service are moderate only and are clearly explained in the advertisement."

Previously, the term 'unlimited' has been applied to ever-looser terms and conditions, including those with a clear limit on the quantity of data that can be downloaded per billing period or even on the length of time that a user can spend online. ISPs found guilty of the practice have weasled their way out, declaring the service to be 'without limits' up until a 'fair usage policy' - which, they claim, is not a limit - is reached.

Today's guidance note ends that practice, taking on board feedback from Ofcom that no service which has any kind of official limitation should be described as 'unlimited.'

CAP's guidance note also addresses the thorny issues of broadband speed claims. Due to the way the technology operates, various subscribers to ADSL-based services get various speeds based on distance to the exchange, quality of line, and even the number of extensions they have wired up in their house.

Previously, advertisers have used the phrase 'up to' to indicate the maximum speed attainable with a broadband connection, usually basing their figures on the maximum possible speed of the underlying technology itself. As this speed is unlikely to be reached by an end-user, CAP has declared it misleading and called for the practice to stop.

"If a maximum speed claim is made, advertisers should be able to demonstrate that the speed is achievable for at least 10 per cent of customers," CAP's guidance notes state. "Advertisers should also include in the ad appropriate, additional information to accompany a maximum speed claim to ensure the average consumer is not misled.

"Where relevant, this includes information that bears out that a significant proportion of subscribers receive a speed that falls considerably short of what consumers might reasonably expect the service to offer," the guidance concludes.

Don't expect to see an immediate change in advertising, however: to give ISPs and telecommunications providers a chance to implement the new rules, which will require a total rewrite of all TV, radio, and print adverts from the majority of UK ISPs, they won't come into full effect until April 2012.

"This new guidance directly responds to consumer concerns by setting an appropriately high bar for advertisers who want to make speed and ‘unlimited’ claims in ads," claimed CAP chair James Best. "Advertising is only effective if consumers trust the messages they see and hear. This guidance will help deliver that."