Telecoms watchdog Ofcom has threatened the UK broadband industry with mandatory regulation after a study revealed that the majority of fixed-line broadband customers receive less than half of the bandwidth promised by advertising.
In a study conducted with broadband monitoring experts SamKnows, over 18 million individual speed tests were carried out at different times of day in more than 1,500 homes during May 2010. The sample tested enabled Ofcom to compare the performance of the broadband packages used by more than 250,000 residential connections.
The survey found that 24 per cent of fixed-line residential broadband consumers had a connection advertised as 'up to' more than 10Mbps, compared with just eight per cent the year before - but that differences between the headline speeds promised in the adverts and the actual speeds experienced by users have grown significantly.
DSL packages advertised as offering 'up to' eight or 10Mbps were found to perform at an average of just 3.3Mbps, while faster services of 'up to' 20 or 24Mbps offered 6.5Mbps - barely more than a quarter of the headline speed.
The discrepancy between the two figures is partly down to the quality of customers' phone lines - but Ofcom also noted a sharp tailing off during peak periods, suggesting that too many customers were sharing too little bandwidth.
Cable services fared better, with Ofcom observing that Virgin Media's 'up to' 10Mbps and 'up to' 20Mbps services were on average more than twice as fast as equivalently rated DSL offerings. Virgin's 'up to' 50Mbps cable was the fastest service on test, delivering average download speeds of 46Mbps during multiple-download testing.
When Ofcom performed equivalent tests in April 2009, it found that average actual speeds were approximately 58 per cent of average advertised speeds (41.Mbps, compared to 7.1Mbps). In May 2010, the figure had fallen to 45 per cent (5.2Mbps compared to 11.5Mbps).
This isn't the first time Ofcom has noted shortcomings in the information given to broadband customers about their connections. A mystery shopper exercise (opens in new tab) carried out by the watchdog late last year revealed that while 85 per cent of callers were given an estimate of the maximum speed for their line before they signed up, three-quarters were not warned that actual speeds could be lower.
As a result of its findings, Ofcom has issued a new code of practice for broadband ISPS, and is discussing the issue of broadband advertising with the Advertising Standards Authority and the Committee on Advertising Practice.
The watchdog has recommended that speeds should only be advertised if at least some consumers are actually able to achieve them.
Ofcom also wants to see the creation of a standard measure - provisionally called TSR or 'typical speed range' - similar to miles per gallon or APR in the financial service industry, which must be quoted in addition to any 'up to' speed claims.
However welcome Ofcom's new voluntary code is, though, it doesn't go far enough for many critics of the industry. Peter Vicary-Smith, Chief Executive of consumer magazine Which?, said:
"Some internet service providers continue to advertise ever-increasing speeds that bear little resemblance to what most people can achieve in reality. We want the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to step up to the mark and put an end to these misleading claims once and for all."
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