Telcos will be honest if you force them to – Which research

New research from Which has suggested telcos will be honest and realistic about downloads speeds as long as there are rules preventing them from blatantly misleading the consumer.

Following the introduction of new rules by the Committees of Advertising Practice in May, eleven broadband providers throughout the UK have cut the speeds claimed through advertising, some by as much as 41%. The guilty parties are BT, EE, John Lewis Broadband, Plusnet, Sky, Zen Internet, Post Office, SSE, TalkTalk and Utility Warehouse.

“Customers will now have a much clearer idea of the speeds that can be achieved when they are shopping around for broadband,” said Alex Neill, Which MD of Home Services. “For those still struggling to get a reasonable speed or connection, the Government must press ahead with its crucial plans to deliver the service that broadband customers need, without it costing them the earth.”

The dreaded ‘up to’ metric in advertising has been plaguing the British consumer for decades as advertisers unashamedly take advantage of the consumer through one of the multiple grey areas in regulations. The telcos are some of the worst around, though it we should hardly be surprised as customer care and transparency seem to hit rock bottom of the list of priorities and virtues.

Prior to the rule changes from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), as long as telcos could prove 10% of customers could achieve a certain speed, the creatives in the marketing department could say whatever they want. As long as new customers were being duped into contracts, who would give a second though the 90% who have been directly misled; they are tied up with small print for 12 months, don’t have to worry about them for a while.

The new rules, which are still by no means perfect but at least a step in the right direction, state providers now have to advertise speeds which are achievable for 50% of customers during peak times (8-10pm). Those who are able to prove the speeds are not considered satisfactory are handed a machete to cut themselves through the contracts red tape and ditch the offending provider.

Which claims prior to the rule changes introduced on May 23, customers were paying for paying for speeds which we actually 51% lower than what they signed up for. Among the offenders, TalkTalk has completely dropped advertising speed claims from most of its deals, while Vodafone changed the names of its offers from Fibre 38 and Fibre 76 to Superfast 1 and Superfast 2. Across the board from the worst offenders, today’s advertised speeds for the cheapest deals are now 41% lower than during the wild-west advertising fest.

While the news internet service providers are now being held accountable for speeds in advertising, there might still be a few ways those crafty marketers can trick consumers into signing up for services.

“While it is great that this change to the rules has pushed industry to bring its speed claims closer to the truth, it only goes to show why it is so important that the Advertising Standards Authority finishes the job it started here,” said Greg Mesch, CEO at CityFibre.

“Now is the time to address the use of “fibre” in adverts, as across the country people are still paying for services they can’t yet receive while being stuck on prehistoric copper-based infrastructure. The ASA must take its head out of the sand and change these antiquated rules immediately so that as full fibre becomes widespread, customers are able to make a genuine choice.”

Steps forward in terms of fibre might have been taken, though CityFibre is one organization which does not think the advertising watchdog has gone far enough. The ASA believes providers should be allowed to describe hybrid offerings as ‘fibre’ as the general public can now comprehend the difference between ‘fibre’ and ‘full-fibre’ in advertising claims (or doesn’t actually care that much). As you would imagine, CityFibre is taking issue with the slight, and is taking the ASA to court over the matter.

Although serial-moaner and sh*t stirrer CityFibre doesn’t usually need any support to preach and proclaim, we tend to agree with Mesch and his cronies here. Broadband is now a staple in the diet of today’s consumer and this should be reflected in advertising. Such contracts are complicated enough, and consumers should not have to worry about where providers are taking creative licence.

UK ISPs told to stop using ‘up to’ broadband speed claims

The Advertising Standards Agency has placed a slither of logic into broadband advertising rules, partly tackling the issue of misleading representations with the use of ‘up to’ in adverts.

As of 23 May 2018, UK ISPs are guided (note) not to describe download speeds using the phrase ‘up to’, but instead describe ‘average’ speeds, only quoting numbers which can be achieved by 50% of customers during peak hours. The hope is customers will have a more accurate representation of the actual services they will be purchasing from ISPs, though we imagine it won’t be long until the slippery marketers at the ISPs think of another way to screw the customer.

“There are a lot of factors that affect the broadband speed a customer is going to get in their own home – from technology to geography, to how a household uses broadband,” said Shahriar Coupal, Director of the Committees of Advertising Practice.

“While we know these factors mean some people will get significantly slower speeds than others, when it comes to broadband ads, our new standards will give consumers a better understanding of the broadband speeds offered by different providers when deciding to switch providers.”

Right now, ISPs can claim customers will experience ‘up to’ speeds, should it be able to demonstrate 10% of customers actually can. Many have criticised the practise as misleading, as 10% is not an accurate representation of an ISPs performance. And those people complaining should feel completely justified.

While this is a positive move from the ASA, you have to question why the advertisers need a six month window to get used to the rules. If the government changed the speed limit on the motorway tomorrow, we would still have to abide by the rules from tomorrow.

Alongside the rule change, the ASA has also released some research into how the term ‘fibre’ can be used in advertising. There aren’t any rulings to report just yet, but the ASA has some interesting snippets to report from the initial research.

  • The consumer thinks fibre is a generic buzzword to describe speeds within advertising
  • Fibre is not considered to be a differentiating factor when making a buying decision
  • Even after educating the consumer on what fibre actually is, they probably still won’t care

The purpose of the research was to identify whether those slippery marketers were being dodgy once again. It has been noticed that fibre is a term used in advertising to describe both full-fibre and part-fibre connections. Little has been done to distinguish between the two, or even let the consumer know what the difference is, but they don’t seem to care anyway.

This should not be viewed as a green-light for ISPs to continue the trend of misleading truths however. ISPs generally do not need any encouragement to exaggerate, and we wonder whether it is sensible for the ASA to essentially say it is not bothered.

As it stands, ISPs can only say it is a fibre service if there is fibre in the service. This should be obvious, but better state it just in case there are some ‘creative’ marketers out there getting some funny ideas. Advertising speeds should be relative to the technology on offer. Finally, ISPs are not allowed to say services are the most technologically advanced on the market if it is only part-fibre.

This is certainly a positive step forward for the consumer, but there is still work to be done. We appreciate performance will vary for customers, therefore there is a need for a broad brush in TV advertising, but considering the targeted nature of online advertising, we would like to see much more accurate and regionalised statistics.

The ISPs still have six months to rinse the ‘up to’ phrase, and then we’ll see what other nuances the slippery marketers can come up with to mislead the consumer. It should be noted, however, that this is merely guidance and there don’t seem to be any explicit sanctions in place should ISPs ignore the recommendations.