Broadband speeds: our providers are lying to us

Updated: 
Cable broadbandThe broadband watchdog has accused some providers of failing to be honest about speeds.

According to the latest statistics, there are nearly 53 million internet users in the UK, out of a population of 62 million. Just about everyone in Britain between the ages of 12 and 82 is online.

But many of us don't get a fair deal when it comes to our broadband packages. Last week regulator Ofcom ordered providers to be more open and honest when providing information about broadband speeds.

How's my speed?
In December 2008, the Voluntary Code of Practice on Broadband Speeds was introduced to inform consumers of their likely maximum speed before signing up to a broadband service. This wasn't as effective as hoped, so a strengthened Code came into force in July 2011.

As well as other conditions, the new Code requires internet service providers (ISPs) to give estimated speeds in the form of a range as early as possible in their sales processes. All of the UK's largest ISPs have signed up to the Code, which covers 95% of broadband users.


For cable services (such as those provided by Virgin Media), the Code allows a single speed to be quoted, rather than a range. This is because cable speeds are not affected by the quality and length of copper telephone lines, which means more certainty about download and upload speeds for cable users.

Speed checks
In order to check if ISPs were following the rules, Ofcom organised 1,369 'mystery shopping' enquiries, both online and by telephone. These took place between 17 December 2011 and 19 January 2012.

This mystery-shopping exercise revealed that compliance with the Code has improved, but further work is also needed. Ofcom found that in 93% of telephone enquiries made by mystery shoppers, a speed estimate was given to consumers by providers. Almost three-quarters (72%) of the time, this estimate was given as a range.

In other words, only one in 14 calls (7%) failed to adhere to the Code, which is a pretty good result for what is a voluntary industry Code.

Could do better
Then again, Ofcom did find some weaknesses in sales processes.

For instance, some sales agents had to be prompted by mystery shoppers before they provided speed estimates. The Code requires that this information be 'volunteered as early as possible in the sales process', so some ISPs were not properly compliant with the Code.

Overall, unprompted speed estimates were given to the mystery shoppers in nearly three-fifths (59%) of mystery-shopping calls. Then again, this estimate masks a wide range of results, as the following table shows:

ISP

Unprompted

pass rate

ISP

Unprompted

pass rate

Karoo

76%

UK average

59%

Sky

72%

BT Total Broadband

48%

Plusnet

67%

TalkTalk

47%



As you can see, with a score of 76%, Karoo was the ISP most likely to give callers an estimated speed without prompting. Sky came second in this test (72%), followed by Yorkshire-based Plusnet (67%).

At the other end of the scale, with a pass rate of 47%, TalkTalk did terribly by providing unprompted speed estimates less than half of the time. BT -- the UK's biggest broadband provider -- hardly did better, thanks to a pass rate of 48%.

In other words, TalkTalk and BT failed to meet the Code in more than half of cases, which leaves enormous room for improvement. After a warning from Ofcom, both ISPs have agreed to amend their staff training and sales processes.

To try to ensure information on broadband speeds reaches consumers, Ofcom is talking with ISPs to improve the disclosure provided by their call-centre staff. Also, the watchdog is reminding ISPs that their sales agents must offer speed estimates as early in conversations as possible.

In addition, Ofcom is updating its consumer guides on choosing a broadband provider and broadband speeds. This will help consumers to ask the right questions before signing up to a new service or switching. The regulator will review the Code again in 2013 -- including another mystery-shopping exercise -- to find out if ISPs have cleaned up their acts.

What should you do?
Claudio Pollack, Ofcom's consumer group director, said, "It is vital that as the choice of broadband services expands, UK consumers get the best possible information when choosing a broadband provider. Our mystery shopping shows that, while consumer information about broadband speeds has improved in important areas, there is still more to be done."

He adds, "We are working with internet providers to improve information that consumers receive when they sign up to a new service and will continue to monitor this area closely."

In other words, until the Code is mandatory, it's up to consumers to make sure that ISPs give us honest information on broadband speeds.

So when you're shopping around for a better broadband deal (whether online or by phone), the first thing you should ask for is a proper speed estimate. If your actual speeds turn out to be significantly below that estimate, then you have the right to cancel a contract without penalty.

Remember, you can compare broadband packages with the Ofcom-accredited price-comparison site BroadbandChoices.

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