Rory Cellan-Jones

Ofcom acts on broadband speed

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 5 Jun 08, 09:20 GMT

Did they know we planned our Broadband Britain tour for this week? Ofcom - the media and telecoms watchdog has just published its broadband speed code - and revealed that it's right in the middle of the biggest study of speeds ever undertaken in the UK.

Rory Cellan-Jones in EdinburghYes, even bigger than our exercise this week which attracted more than 30,000 people in just a few hours on Tuesday - evidence of what a hot issue this is for anyone who has a broadband connection.

The code is voluntary, but with companies accounting for 90% of all broadband connections signing up, it will effectively become the standard which any firm will need to adopt if it is to be taken seriously by consumers. So how tough is it?

Well it concentrates not so much on the advertising of broadband as on the point when the customer signs on the dotted line - or, more likely, clicks on "accept" on a website. The ISPs will now be required to provide customers with "an accurate estimate of the maximum speed that line can support." So what happens if that estimate turns out to be too optimistic? Well they'll then have to offer customers "the choice to move onto a lower speed package" - which I suppose means a cheaper deal.

Ofcom says it will be monitoring ISPs' behaviour closely through techniques such as "mystery shopping" and there's the threat of a statutory code if they don't shape up.

So will this instantly put an end to the confusion? Will those people who have been angry and disappointed that they are only getting 2Mbps on an "up to 8Mbps" deal now be satisfied? Probably not, because, as far as I can see, the code does nothing to stop ISPs labelling their products in the same "up to a zillion megs" way they always have. If your neighbour tells you he's getting a "20 meg line", you'll be annoyed if you can't get that speed too.

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As we have seen, broadband speed can be difficult to measure and can change like the weather on a Scottish hillside from one moment to the next. Perhaps broadband packages need the same kind of colour-coding you now get on cereal boxes, with red, amber and green telling you just how nutritious it is going to be.

Ofcom has installed monitoring equipment in over 2000 homes to measure their broadband speeds and says that will mean tens of millions of speed tests. That should provide a more accurate picture than we have been able to give with our simple snapshot test.

Then perhaps the regulator will have to move onto the advertising of mobile broadband. We have been trying out 3g dongles from three different mobile networks in a range of locations - including on Arthur's Seat overlooking Edinburgh yesterday afternoon. Up there, we downloaded our 10mb test video file from the BBC website in just over a minute - quite respectable.

I am now a convert to mobile broadband - it is great to have a back-up when, for instance, you can't get into the hotel wi-fi. But don't get too excited. "Up to 7.2Mbps" sounds brilliant. But I have never got more than about 1Mbps - and as I write in a hotel in Peterborough, I'm getting something much slower than that.

Rory Cellan-Jones on a trainMind you it's faster than we got from the wi-fi on the train south from Edinburgh last night. Our hopes of doing a historic live broadcast from the train via broadband were dashed. But then the train company makes no claims about the speed of its internet connection, and offers it to passengers for nothing.

The broadband firms have now agreed that they will give their "passengers" much clearer information about real speeds. Perhaps they will end up blaming a poor connection on leaves on the line, or the wrong kind of snow.


  • Comment number 1.

    "the choice to move onto a lower speed package" - which I suppose means a cheaper deal.

    Not necessarily, though this might push the ISPs to more honest pricing models. Mine, for example (the excellent Entanet) don't price by speed, all connections are ADSL MAX 'Up to 8Mbit' ones. The prices work on download caps with separate caps for daytime and overnight. It works very well; no claims are made about unpredictable line speed, heavy traffic is kept off the network at the times people want good interactive response, and heavy downloaders still get to shift tens or hundreds of Gb per month.

  • Comment number 2.

    I've been on the same cable broadband connection since 1999.

    The irony is that my usual speed now is hardly any different to my original 1999 speed, although I'm supposedly paying for one 4 times as fast.

    Admittedly when I first signed up I was getting pretty much the maximum advertised speeds and sometimes even a little faster, but even so there's clearly a lot of money to be made in the "Up to X.XMbps" slogan, when the reality of the connection speed is often 50% or less of what is advertised.

  • Comment number 3.

    I also think the current way most ISPs erroneously market and sell broadband is stopping the creation of mass-market "low speed low cost" packages that e-mail and a bit of web shopping users might enjoy.

    Basically the broadband equivalent of an old dial-up connection that can cope with modern media rich websites.

    Of course with the current implementation they would be "up to 1.0mbps" and in reality probably just a bit better (download anyway) than old ISDN delivery speeds.

    And of course a package that genuinely did deliver that speed would remove demand for supposedly faster and more expensive and therefore profitable ones that in reality delivered something similar.

  • Comment number 4.

    The other question is whether OFCOM have made any moves towards the equally (if not more so) contentious issue of advertising as unlimited connections that are subject to quite restrictive useage caps.

    After all, if OFCOM thinks that the average user is too dim to understand that "up to 8mb" does not mean "guaranteed 8mb", then how can it possibly defend the ISPs blatant misuse of the word "unlimited"?

  • Comment number 5.

    I would have liked to see included a commitment to ensure ISPs are more transparent over 12 and 18 month contract period lock-ins especially when customers want to downgrade or upgrade their packages. Otherwise it's all a move in the right direction.

  • Comment number 6.

    If I order 4Mb broadband I expect to get 4Mb broadband, not 0.2345Mb based on contention rates, line length, shoe size and colour of underpants at the time.

    It's a shambles based on blentant lies and mis-information and a shame we can't all get our money back for not getting what was advertised in big bold letters and then caveatsed out in minute letters on another page somewhere else.

    Don't even get me started on 'fair use'.

    If they were builders they'd be called cowboys...yeeeehhaaaaaa.

    I feel a lot netter now

  • Comment number 7.

    The one thing that worries me more than anything is companies advertising unlimited download packages and then limiting downloads in accordance with "reasonable use clauses" surely this is something that requires action from the OFT not recommendations as this is blatant false advertising and surely contravenes several laws how can something be unlimited and limited at the same time?

    Gary Head

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    The new code Ofcom have introduced does seem to tackle fair use and traffic management policies too. Their guide (link below) says that where ISPs have fair usage or traffic management policies they "should explain their rules clearly on their website"

  • Comment number 10.

    Agree with the comments about "Unlimited" broadband. The CarphoneWaehouse lists their "Unlimited" as 3GB per month fair use.

    How can they get away with that?

    The other thing I've noticed recently is the number of "deals" where you get broadband for £4.99 (or similar - always the biggest text in the ad). The small print then shows that this is for the first 3 months of a minimum 18-24 month contract.

    In that case, it is not £4.99 a month.

    It is, for example, (£4.99 x 3) + (£12.99 x 15) / 18months = £11.66 per month - more than double the advertised rate.

  • Comment number 11.

    "The Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA) said it supported the principle of the code and had helped to draw it up."

    On the basis of above revelation, just remember who helped to draw up the CODE.

    If OFCOM was really concerned about doing some justice, why is it that there is no input from user group (the public at large). It is obvious that public can't keep OFCOM in business but the ISP providers can.

    Overall we have lived with being expoited by ISP providers and I cannopt see how this is going to stop it.

  • Comment number 12.

    For the purposes of full disclosure, I surf along on a nice and quick corporate leased line at home *most* of the time.

    But these are some things that really annoy me about DSL:

    1) My DSL ISP used to be nice (Pipex) if not a little rough when it come to support. Then a nasty company called Tiscali bought them and started really messing things up. Still in contract to Pipex because their contract states no obligation on them to provide a quality working internet connection - just a connection with the theoretical possibility to provide any form of internet connectivity.

    2) Give me a minimum speed. Work it the other way, instead of 'up to 8Mb' make it, 'A minimum of 2Mb'

    3)Be open and up front about what you do to the connection. Publish a full list of ports which are blocked, services that you are not allowed to use and define what 'fair use' is and what happens when yo are deemed 'unfair

    For example:
    'You are free to use up to 5GB of bandwidth per hour. Once you exceed this limit, during peak service demand (12noon thru 9pm) we will limit your service speed to 30% normal speed for up to 4 hours or during non-peak 50% for 2 hours.'


    'This package has a minimum connection speed of 2Mbps and a 5GB per hour bandwidth cap. The following ports are blocked [list of ports and descriptions].'

    3) Naked Broadband
    I just want broadband. I don't need telephone and nor do I need television. Come to think of it, I don't need a mobile phone either. Just broadband - and I don't want to have to pay more for my broadband because I would add extras on.

  • Comment number 13.

    The alternative is to move away from ADSL to cable services, such as that run by Virgin, as the service levels are more constant and distance from phone exchange ceases to be a problem. The only issue is that coverage is far from universal, even in urban areas...

  • Comment number 14.

    The problem is not advertiements of speed, people can work out for themselves that. If you are miles away from your local exchange, then you will get slower than the 'upto' you get.

    I'm on Be broadband and they explain very clearly that you are not going to get the 24mbps that they advertise as it depends on distance from exchange/copper quality and the like. I get 18mbps, and thats fine for me.

    The biggest problem is the use of the word 'unlimited' depending on what isp you go to 'unlimited' can mean anything. on T-mobile it can be 1GB on a cheap package, 2GB on the next one up and 5GB on the next, but all labeled as unlimited.

    The word unlimited should only be used when there is NO limit.

  • Comment number 15.

    Using the word 'unlimited' should be made illegal in adverts when they also mention a fair use policy applies. I'm sorry, but the definition of unlimited is without restriction!

    This issue came up before when ISP's starting offering 'unlimited dialup,' but failed to tell users that they would be disconnected if they stayed connected for more than two hours!

    OFCOM have had years to tackle these problems and don't really care about consumers being ripped off.

  • Comment number 16.

    steand, which broadband service run by carphone warehouse are you referring to? they aren't an ISP, they sell subscriptions to ISPs such as Virgin Media, AOL, TalkTalk, T-mobile, 3, etc...

    If you're wondering what a fair usage policy is... it's different from a limit in that if you run over it, they don't (and can't legally) charge you any extra. A fair usage policy is like the provider saying, "we'd like it if in general you could stay within these boundaries."

    It's only if you significantly run over again and again that they will take action to slow you down or limit your usage.

    That said, a friend of mine who has one of those mobile dongles downloaded - via iTunes - the entire third series of an unnamed American TV show about people stranded on an island following a plane crash.... much more than 3GB but his provider didn't mind at all.

  • Comment number 17.

    In my opinion firms should have to quote the minimum speed that any customer can expect to receive .
    I would like ofcom to clear up what a contract with an isp entails.
    If a contract in the real world is changed by one word it becomes null and void and has to be agreed again by both parties.This does not appear to be happening with isp's changing terms and conditions as and when they require.

    I feel the most for people who are on cable their ability to move is hampered by the fact they would have to pay to get telephone lines reconnected before they could get another isp.
    Personally i would advise people who want to use the internet to buy their own equipment and to have a one month contract.

  • Comment number 18.

    I don't get what the problem is. Why is "up to 8Mb" so hard to comprehend? I don't see why people are complaining - all of the adverts I've seen all say "up to 8Mb" and not "you will definitely get 8Mb" so it's pretty obviously you're going to get a rate that's under that level. Have you noticed how none of the critics suggest alternative ways to phrase it? You could hardly call it "something above 0.1Mb but below 8Mb" could you? I think "up to 8Mb" is perfectly clear and appropriate.

    If you buy a car, it might say "up to 120mph" in the brochure but you wouldn't expect it to ONLY travel at that speed and to have to do that speed the entire time.

    What's far more of a problem is the use of the "unlimited". This word should not be used unless their connections are unthrottled and you can download at full speed all month without any penalties or fear of your connection being cut. Currently, many ISPs are abusing this term.

  • Comment number 19.

    While the ISP is certainly the most logical entity to provide a user with an estimated line speed, it's important to remember that, for the vast majority of DSL connections, the ISP has nothing to do with the speed.

    Indeed, even the ISPs are paying for up to 8meg lines, and it's the actual BT lines that limit the real speed a customer gets.

    For example, we're with Orange for our ADSL (who I would not recommend) on an up to 8meg package, and we were told to expect between 2 and 3meg - and that's what we have.

    Not that I'm trying to defend the ISPs - in general they're money-grabbing, deceiving and inflexible companies who are about as willing to provide competent technical support as my cat is* - but this is a common problem and really isn't the ISPs' fault.


    * You get a lot more satisfaction out of a cat, though. When you're cleaning feathers and blood off the floor in the morning, vaguely wondering where the other half of the bird is, at least you can say that your cat loves and respects you. Try getting some respect from a big ISP!

  • Comment number 20.

    Just to clarify, the common problem that isn't the ISPs' fault is the up to 8meg thing.

    Terrible customer support, while sadly being an experience common to most ISPs, *IS* the fault of them all individually.


  • Comment number 21.

    I don't think this will make any difference what so ever. I have an on going problem with my provider over internet speeds and rearly get above 0.5mgs. What we need is some fine imposed on these companes who appear to fail to live up to their part of the agreed contract

  • Comment number 22.

    Have you guys tried using a real testing tool, like ? I took your test the other day and found results that differed markedly from those of speedtest. Testing from agreed with speedtest's. Since both those sites specialize in such testing and you do not, I question your credibility. I certainly doubt your numbers.

    I ran a Silicon Valley ISP for quite a while and never saw the difference between service promise and delivery that you do, with BT. One could almost think that you are bending the results for the purpose of vilifying BT, for some odd reason. It is almost certain that your testing cannot be close to accurate.

    For the record, speedtest affirmed my bandwidth at 5.1Mbps/512Kbps (ADSL), which is consistant with the contract I have with BlueWin.CH. In contrast, your test rated me at less than 1Mbps. The difference is quite curious. The other thing that is quite curious is that you refuse to use a third-party testing service. Why is that? Not doing so damages your credibility.

    There is no way that all you Brits are ignorant of these tools.

  • Comment number 23.

    Voluntary codes are going to be useless with ISP's who generally deserve the poor press they get in posts above.
    Ofcom, Trading Standards, etc. are proving pretty useless in dealing with these people. The "contracts" they offer are disgraceful and no one who reads the small print really wants to sign up to them but, there is little alternative if you want connected and I have yet to find an ISP whose contract doesn't have some bit of unpleasantness in it however nice it all seems on te surface.

    We need some means of ensuring that such contracts are at least fair and reasonable.

  • Comment number 24.

    I have been involved in producing adverts for 30 years.

    With any other business if I had made the unsubstantiated claims of the Broadband suppliers, the adverts would have been rejected by the BACC and its predecessors.

    So why have these technology companies got away with it?

    Of course, they are aware that most people haven't the foggiest how this all works - so they can lie their teeth off and nobody questions it.

    And the geeks that do understand get safely ignored since most journalists (sadly including many technology journalists) don't understand either.

    In all the articles I have read recently, for instance, I have never seen anyone mention that it is actually impossible to get 8mb with ADSL Max because of overheads - even if you are IN the exchange.

    And does anyone mention contention ratio?

    This is the little bit of information normally written in very small print - it is the number of people that could be sharing your network connection.

    Many domestic packages are 50:1 - fifty people could be sharing your bandwidth!

    When broadband first came in it really didn't matter as not that many people had broadband. But there are a heck of a lot more connected now - it matters!

    Check some of the cheapo offers - they can have contention ratios of up to 70:1

    So, how about putting that little problem in the adverts?

    "Your speed can go down as well as up - your connection speed may be shared with up to 70 other people. We will further decrease your network bandwidth connection speed if our business users need the space (they pay more)"

    Now THAT is getting closer to the truth.

  • Comment number 25.

    In my recent experiences of trying to access the internet from a rural location, 20 miles from a large town, (Norwich) at busy times neither broadband or dial-up access works.
    I reckon that the problem is caused by old BT line plant, particularly DACS line multiplexing equipment that shares a line between several (hopeful) users.
    The line owner, BT, declines responsibility and refer the prospective internet subscriber to their service provider. It is impossible to test the line remotely from a communication hub because subscriber access cannot be achieved. It would be nice to achieve 2 mega bits per second on a line that is supposed to be broadband enabled but has never functioned for this.
    By the way, I worked in the electronic and telecommunication industry for more than 40 years........

  • Comment number 26.

    The speed test on this BBC website is awful, i'm connected to a universities internet connection and i've been able to download at around 10MB/s (yes, megaBYTES) but the BBC told me my speed was 0.9mbps, then 1.2, then 0.9, then 2.3 eventually peaking at 6.9mbps.

    A wholey unreliable tool, so if the BBC speed tester tells you that you are have a 0.1mbps line but your paying for 8, don't worry, the BBC speedtest is most likely wrong!

    I don't think advertising speeds of "up to xmbps" is a problem, people need to educate themselves on what the reality is on getting that actual speed, up to does not imply guarantee. BUT unlimited implies without restriction...

  • Comment number 27.

    Oh, and 10MB/s is equivilent to a connection speed of 84mbps, this would be classed as an 'up to 100mbps' line.

  • Comment number 28.

    The ISP aren't getting away with anything. They're not doing anything wrong... the speed achievable on these old-fashioned ADSL lines is somewhere up to 8 Mbps... so that's what they're saying.

    Are we going to start prosecuting the no-frills airlines just because customers aren't intelligent enough to understand that the word "from" means that not ALL the ticket prices are going to be £2.99.... that's just the lowest price you can get?

    I work in a retail store where we sell various broadband packages from most of the big name ISPs (I shan't name it, although I'm sure you can guess) and in my experience no customer is confused when I tell them to expect "up to 8Mbps".

    I say "well it's up to 8, depending on where you live" and they understand that perfectly. I usually say "so if you live in Liverpool, you'll probably get around 4ish..." not that I really need to, because the brain in their head has already told them what "up to" means.

    Not that I usually defend customers, but I think this whole shebang about marketing of broadband speed is a waste of time. Maybe the british population just needs to resit its English GCSE and learn to read and understand simple, plain English in adverts!!

  • Comment number 29.

    Everybody should know that Microsoft are not doing anything to help either. YEP, MICROSOFT ARE NOT HELPING! What a shocker!

    My PC (Windows XP) downloaded the 10MB BBC File in 3 minutes (approx)

    My PS3 downloaded the same 10MB BBC File in 12 seconds.

    Just thought you should all know this (ahem, the BBC should know this)!!!

  • Comment number 30.

    Oh and Paul Freeman-Powell...

    A more honest advertsising compaign would be for the advertising company to say this:

    "Call this free 0800-xxx-xxxx number to get an accurate estimate of what speed you can recieve."

    Because what does "up to..." mean? Certain times of the day? Times of the year? Atmospheric interference like TV signals? Dependent of network traffic? Location?

    The customer is not being told what "up to..." means at all, so please do not defend a company that lives on commision.

  • Comment number 31.

    Speeds of broadband can be slow but this can be down to distance from exchange. i am from ards and the number of houses at the limits or just outside of the reach for broadband has grown sharply. Yet there is only one exchange that i am aware of. THis homes are added into the current exchange therefore that exchange is overloaded and many people like myself you would like a good broadband speed cannot get it. There really need to new exchange for ards and am sure other areas to enabled a good broadband service for all. currently i do not thing bt cares am it customers.

  • Comment number 32.

    Why is it that organisations like OFCOM, Advertising Standards, FSA, OFWAT etc. are so pathetically slow to deal with situations which are obvious to anyone with a small degree of common sense?

    Broadband issues are clear:

    Advertising unobtainable speeds

    Misuse of ‘unlimited’ in contest of downloads

    Poor service when connected and rip off support costs

    Advertising price as £4.99 a month when it isn’t over a 12/18/24 month contract.

    How long will the industry be allowed to get away with this? Ages, there a reviews to conduct ( to discover the obvious), voluntary codes to try, discussions to hold……Meanwhile the consumer is screwed as usual.


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