New guidelines for advertising maximum download speeds

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Download speeds

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) have published guidelines on how Internet Service Providers should be describing their speeds in advertisements. Currently ISPs advertise using 'up to' speeds based on the highest speed available in the most ideal situation. Unfortunately, these speeds are rarely achieved by the majority of broadband lines, making advertised speeds misleading, and confusing many potential customers in the process.

The new guidelines - which ISPs are expected to be following by April 1st, 2012 - state that ISPs can only claim to provide maximum speeds that at least 10% of their customers can achieve. ISPs will be expected to justify their advertised speeds every 6 months based on actual usage data, ensuring that figures are kept up to date.

While this is unlikely to affect maximum advertised speeds for Virgin Media cable (already well within the suggested guidelines) and should have little affect on Fibre to the Cabinet solutions such as BT Infinity, the advertised speeds for telephone line broadband (ADSL) may well drop from up to 20/24Mbps down to 18Mbps, or even 13Mbps, depending on the ISP.

This variation is because speeds available for broadband supplied over telephone lines are very much dependent on the length of the line between the local exchange and the property. The longer the line, the lower the maximum download speed. Variation between individual ISPs may be due to how over-subscribed (highly contended) their service is and whether the product is supplied using older technologies (such as 'up to 8Mb' ADSL Max) in some areas.

Although this should allow better comparison between different broadband providers and their services, critics of the new rules point out that potential customers are still likely to be confused by the new advertised speed figures as most will be in the 90% that are unable to achieve the maximum speeds. A side effect of the new regulations means that some small proportion of users will soon be in the confusing position of having speeds higher than the advertised maximum.

Critics argue that broadband advertising should make it clear that speeds available over telephone lines are hugely dependant on the customer's individual line and that customers should be encouraged to enter their postcode or phone number for a personalised estimate. Broadband providers are already required to give an estimate of expected download speed before the customer commits to signing up, and comparison sites such as's availability checker will give estimates of all the broadband speeds available to any particular line.

In addition to these new advertised speed guidelines, new rules regarding the use of the term "unlimited" in reference to download allowances will also come into play:

  • The term "unlimited" can only be used if the customer 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
  • Limitations that do affect the speed or usage of the service must also be moderate only and clearly explained in the advertisement (small print is not enough)
  • Controversially, traffic management policies limiting the performance of particular uses of the service (such as file sharing or streaming video) can still be maintained on an 'unlimited' product

While there are concerns that these new rules are not enough and are still open to confusion, it can still be considered a large step in the right direction to allow consumers to be able to make their choices with more accurate information available to them.

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