Ofcom has today published a new voluntary code of practice aimed at rebuilding consumer trust in the ISP industry damaged by misleading speed claims.
The code doesn't cover marketing, so don't necessarily expect an end to the "UNLIMITED* SUPERFAST** 8MEG*** BROADBAND!!!" adverts that leave so many feeling cheated.
Instead, 32 fixed line ISPs, covering 90 per cent of the market, have agreed to provide clear caveats and accurate speed estimates at the point of sale and on their websites. Line checkers should always be used where possible before the customer can take up a broadband service, the code says, and a durable record of the estimated speed should be provided.
Regulators plan to monitor compliance with the voluntary rules via mystery shopping. Signatories to the code can therefore continue to advertise something they physically cannot provide, so long as their sales staff mention that fact when people ring up.
The code also calls on providers to work harder to identify and resolve individual customer's line problems.
"Fair use" limits will come under welcome new scrutiny. Compliant ISPs will be required to email customers when a fair use limit is breached, and be clear what the consequences are in terms of line speed or additional costs. They should "consider" warning users who approach the limit.
Many of the cheaper and "free" ISPs employ strict usage limits, but currently refuse to tell their customers or the press exactly what they are.
Opaque traffic shaping policies are also covered by the code. If an ISP has deployed kit to throttle specific protocols such as BitTorrent, it should publish the fact on its website, and provide details of the times when the brakes are applied. PlusNet is the only ISP we can think of that does this properly at the moment (e.g. here. We're happy to hear about others).
ISPA, which like all trade associations favours voluntary self-regulation like this, welcomed the code. It participated in drafting the rules, and said today: "ISPA encourages its members to display openness and transparency when dealing with their customers and believes the CoP supports this.
"We would like to see the CoP extended to include wireless mobile operators that provide broadband over their networks as well as fixed line broadband providers, to ensure minimal confusion to consumers."
Because the code is voluntary, failure to comply with it carries no penalty. It allows signatories six months to put their house in order before they're, erm, not in compliance. Read it here. You can check if your provider has signed to obey the rules here.
Alongside the new code of practice, Ofcom announced a new programme of research to assess speeds across the country. Millions of software speed checks will be done, and monitoring hardware will be installed in 2,000 households nationwide. Regulators aim to report their findings later this year.
Epitiro, a Welsh firm that does independent monitoring of New Zealand broadband for Ofcom's Kiwi equivalent, pointed out that the survey should not only consider line speed. Managing Director Gavin Johns said: "Many would say it's more frustrating not to have a connection than to have a slow connection.
"This is a positive move by Ofcom which will reduce consumers' over reliance on crude and unreliable speed tests, which do not take into consideration issues such as traffic management policies."
O2, which got the ADSL2+ jump on others by its purchase of the Be Unlimited network, nevertheless aimed to call out slower opposition to expose their real speeds. Its broadband chief Mike Fairman said in a statement: "The estimated access line speed is a useful starting point but the real test will be an independent 'throughput' test which measures how each ISP performs in practice. O2 is keen to work with Ofcom in establishing an independent throughput speed test which will demonstrate the significant investment O2 has made in its broadband network capacity." ®
***You're joking aren't you?!