Broadband deals - is the fog clearing?

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Spend half an hour shopping for a broadband deal and you may want to go and lie down in a darkened room for a while.

The adverts bamboozle you with special offers that will expire after six months, put the line rental cost in the small print, and promise you "up to" speeds which you suspect will never be delivered.

But is the fog about to clear as regulators get tough on misleading adverts?

The move by Vodafone to "drop" the monthly rental charge - or at least merge it into the overall price - is one hopeful sign. It was a smart PR move by the mobile operator but one that all the other broadband providers will have to follow by the end of October.

That is when new rules from the Advertising Standards Authority come in, obliging the companies to show the total monthly cost of a deal in their ads.

That should mean an end to offers which tell you your broadband will be "FREE!" - with the little detail of a £17.99 monthly line-rental charge, plus a setup fee, made far less clear.

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Image caption Lovely view - but how's the internet?

But another aspect of broadband advertising rules may need looking at by the regulator.

This morning, the Local Government Association is complaining that people in rural areas are badly served by companies with adverts promising download speeds of "up to...".

The LGA says the rules allow companies to promise those speeds if 10% of customers can actually get them - and in rural areas they will almost certainly never get close.

It is calling for a switch to advertising average speeds, which might better reflect what people in the countryside can actually get.

That 10% figure does seem a very low bar for companies to clear, although the ASA tells me that "from" and "up to" pricing has "long been established in advertising policy".

Matters should improve as more people get fibre connections that don't degrade with distance from the exchange in the way experienced by those with an ADSL broadband package.

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While the regulator says complaints about broadband speed advertising have declined, it is planning new research into consumers' understanding of the speed claims to try to work out whether the rules need to be toughened.

But when it comes to the way many people research new broadband deals, it seems clear to me that there is a serious danger that consumers are being misled. Google "broadband deals" and there is a good chance that at the top you will see a paid link to the price comparison site uSwitch.

The site was quick to provide comment on Vodafone's move to abandon separate line rental charges. "It won't be long before this way of pricing becomes the norm across the whole broadband market, although Vodafone should get a pat on the back for being the first to take the plunge," said its expert.

But when you look at that Top Ten Deals link on the price comparison site you notice a couple of things. First, there is no mention of Vodafone's broadband deals here or anywhere on the site, and second, the offers still feature the basic cost in big bold letters, with the line rental cost broken out separately in much smaller type.

The telecoms regulator Ofcom told me it has an accreditation scheme for price comparison websites, but uSwitch is not accredited because it does not comply with the rules on advertising the all-inclusive prices.

'Puzzled'

I put these two matters to uSwitch.

A spokeswoman told me the site did not feature Vodafone deals because "unfortunately they don't yet make their deals available online".

Vodafone tells me it is puzzled by this as its broadband offers are indeed available online. As for the issue with Ofcom, uSwitch says it is "constantly reviewing" its position about the regulator's accreditation scheme.

The way we choose an energy deal or evaluate a new car or a bank account is getting somewhat simpler under pressure from regulators. But for now at least, it looks as though working out which broadband supplier offers the best deal is still a matter of peering through the fog.

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