A year ago almost to the day we called
for Ofcom to put an end to ISPs’ ridiculous practice of describing broadband speeds with the meaningless phrase “up to”. Now Ofcom is again skirting around the issue in its latest survey
of UK broadband speeds. Its own data shows that while “headline” speeds (ie the theoretical maximum – and even they are not true) have increased significantly over the past year, the actual speed achieved as a proportion of that “top” speed has actually fallen, from 58% to 46%. The craziness is illustrated further by the fact that the average speed attained by customers subscribing to “up to 20Mbps” packages is only 6.8Mbps, ie lower than the “headline” speed of inferior “up to 8Mbps” packages.
The average download speed for all DSL connections has increased by only 10% over the past 12 months, from 3.7Mbps to 4.0Mbps, in spite of the fact that many more customers are being offered “up to” 20Mbps packages (ie DSL 2+). Note that the primary factor behind the higher increase in UK speeds overall is because of Virgin Media’s upgrading of its cable service: average cable broadband speeds have more than doubled, from 4.9Mbps to 9.9Mbps. That’s a testament to the growing strength of the UK’s cable operator, and an indictment of the recent supposed improvements in the DSL network.
Ofcom’s excuse regarding regulating the “up to” nonsense is that this is not its job, but that of the advertising regulator. We regard this as a cop-out. Ofcom does have a Voluntary Code of Practice
which “ensures that consumers are given the clearest possible information on access line speeds at point of sale”, and if that doesn’t relate to advertising, I don’t know what does.
The Code of Practice talks a lot about maximum speeds, but not about minimums. This now has to change. Even with the well-known limitations of DSL technology, in the second decade of the 21st century customers have a right to know what minimum level of service they should expect to receive in return for their hard-earned pounds. BT will moan that it cannot yet deliver a minimum of 2Mbps to some parts of the country, so those remoter rural areas should be considered a special case, where “true” broadband (however that is defined) is technically (and temporarily) unavailable. This all goes back to early political demands that broadband be made “universally” available, and the politically inspired nonsense that 99% of UK homes can get DSL broadband services. Yes, but only if you count 250kbps as broadband.
We need to step back so that we can move forward. The reality is that a small percentage – perhaps 5% - of UK homes are currently out of reach of 1-2Mbps+ broadband services, and remain “geographically challenging”. That needs to be accepted as a policy issue and targeted accordingly. The market as a whole should no longer be distorted because of this artificial and technical constraint. Once those homes are identified, the rest of the country should be given guarantees of minimum service, and tiered services will emerge which will give customers a great deal more clarity and confidence than they have had until now.
Client Reading: Global Broadband Scorecard: 2010 Broadband Composite Index (BCI) Rankings