Ofcom's independent consumer quango has called on ISP bosses to ensure people feel less cheated by the broadband packages they advertise.
Dissent has been mounting over "up to" advertising of broadband speeds. For most consumers, an "up to 8Mbit/s" line will crawl to about half that speed because of contention, poor quality wiring and distance from the telephone exchange.
In her letter to the chief execs of the six most popular ISPs, Ofcom Consumer Panel chairman Colette Bowe wrote: "We are of course aware of the technical reasons for the 'up to' terminology that you use.
"I would however like to have your views about how these technical issues might be better addressed in terms of giving clearer information to potential customers."
The Consumer Panel acts as an advisor to Ofcom's regulators. It has no powers of its own, but acts as a "consumer conscience" for the watchdog, which can opt to follow its advice or ignore it.
Consumer confidence in internet providers has taken a battering as margins and therefore customer service have been squeezed. The ISP trade association ISPA will be discussing dissatisfaction with fair usage policies and bandwidth at its conference at the end of this month.
Despite its toothlessness, the Ofcom Consumer Panel has asked the ISPs to consider some specific changes they could make to improve the reputation of the industry. Bowe has suggested the bigwigs agree to advise prospective customers their likely speed on their individual line. They should also extend the cooling-off period, and change contracts so people can switch ISP if the quality of their connection is too poor, she wrote.
Ofcom proper is currently consulting on how best to fund a modern internet infrastructure for the UK. Replacing the dodgy copper and aluminium last mile - which encourages ISPs to use weasel words in their marketing - with fibre-optics will cost billions.
New cabling would make it easier to guarantee speeds by removing the distance and poor quality wiring factors, but may not solve the contention issue, as many Virgin Media customers can attest today. Few in future would notice the difference between 100Mbit/s and 50Mbit/s, however. ®