Has someone at The Times been bitten?
Courtesy of:- The Times Online
What a scandal: the truth about British broadband
The broadband market is in chaos. Stewart Mitchell investigates an industry rife with spurious claims and mis-selling
The state of Britain’s broadband internet is “scandalous” and “impossible”, say leading media commentators. They insist it is a delinquent industry full of half truths, broken promises and strong-arm tactics. Products are described as “free” when they are not, “unlimited” when they are not and “high-speed” when they are far from it.
Of half a dozen internet service providers (ISPs) tested in the evening peak during July and August, none came close to delivering the new target for high-speed internet — 8 megs (the informal abbreviation for Mbps, the unit by which the transfer of broadband data across a phone line is measured). The highest speed achieved was 2.52 megs (see graphic, above).
The rot set in last April, when broadband began being advertised at “up to” 8 megs. Since then, barrow-boy barking and vaguely worded contracts have masked poor performance. Spivvish offers make comparing tariffs meaningless — an outrage when most service providers handcuff customers to contracts of 12 or even 18 months.
Forty per cent of UK households now have broadband, a 12% increase on 2005, but the industry is playing us for mugs. It knows that most consumers believe broadband conforms to a standard — like gas — whoever delivers it to your home. Yet within the same street, performance varies wildly between providers, as does customer service. The telecoms regulator, Ofcom, says consumers must examine ISPs to “assess which suits them”. However, making an informed purchase in today’s tumultuous marketplace is, frankly, beyond the average family.
“The difference between products is verging on scandalous, and it’s hard for consumers to know what they are buying,” says Andrew Ferguson, of the independent online monitor ADSLGuide, “The broadband market is becoming a minefield to negotiate, with consumers not knowing what speeds they will receive until the service is up and running.”
ISPs that make identical claims often deliver very different connection speeds, and most, if not all, can never reach their stated targets. In speed tests carried out by consumers at ADSLGuide, the average evening download rates for two services advertised as “up to” 8 megs differed by a factor of three (0.86 megs for TalkTalk; 2.52 megs for PlusNet).
Off-peak speeds can, of course, be faster. Yet, though TalkTalk offered “up to” 8 megs, it delivered an off-peak average of a paltry 1.2 megs — almost exactly the same as a 2-meg connection. The company has since admitted to Doors that it has barely started upgrading to the latest ADSL technology — a scandalous case of mis-selling.
“We are trialling the DSLMax service and, all being well, hope to upgrade lines to this service in the future,” TalkTalk said. Yet, for months it has been marketing “up to” 8 megs as the target speed.
Such discrepancies abound throughout the industry. Specifications can change on a monthly basis, though performance figures are not available to the public and ISPs are under no obligation to Ofcom to deliver the exotic speeds they advertise. It’s as if ISPs are allowed to promise a Porsche and deliver a Nissan. If our cars spluttered because Shell or BP passed off diesel as premium-grade petrol, there would be an outcry. Britain’s internet users should be as furious about watered-down, inconsistent, broadband.
“We suddenly and completely lost our Wanadoo [now Orange] broadband connection,” says Hilary Stafford-Clark, a writer from Kent. “After many expensive and tedious calls to a help centre in India, I was told the problem was definitely not with the ISP, but with my router. I later discovered Wanadoo was getting a signal from some distance away — too far to support the two-meg service it had sold us without checking whether the telephone line could handle it.”
Such mis-selling is typical of many ISPs. “They are playing fast and loose,” Ferguson says. “It’s a disgrace.”
Broadband has become a “stack ’em high, sell ’em cheap” commodity since big brands began giving it away in exchange for loyalty to their core services. Since TalkTalk introduced its spurious offer of “free” broadband, rival providers have been vying to bundle your day-to-day internet needs with pay TV and telephone. Companies as diverse as the mobile network Orange and the broadcaster BSkyB (part owned by NewsCorp, the parent company of The Sunday Times) have led an internet land grab and forced ISPs to slash prices.
However, unlike reliable utilities such as electricity, pared-to-the-bone broadband can prove frustratingly flaky. In the past 18 months, since BT upped its basic offering to a then-pacy 2 megs, customer satisfaction has plummeted. The number of home broadband customers who describe themselves as “very satisfied” has fallen by almost a fifth at the same time as average speeds have increased nearly fourfold, says Niall Rae, a director at the market research company GFK. “There can be few examples of a service providing so much additional benefit while customers grow less happy.”
Big brand names carry no guarantee of quality; quite the opposite, in fact. Which? reported earlier this month that only one-third of BT’s customers, a quarter of AOL’s and one-fifth of NTL’s — the UK’s largest broadband ISP — said they were “very satisfied” with the service they received.
Del Boy would be proud of the spiel unleashed this year for services bundled like buy-one-get-one-free promotions. The ISP TalkTalk offers “free” high-speed broadband — once you’ve signed up for one of its telephone plans. Orange offers a “free” broadband connection — to its lucrative mobile-phone subscribers. Sky’s recently launched Base broadband service is “free” — if you subscribe to one of its television packages.
Even specialist ISPs such as PlusNet and Pipex bundle in telephone deals, as does the Total Broadband package from BT, trumpeted as including £370 worth of extras, chief among them a fancy wireless router and telephone handset.
Such offers are certainly appealing. Yet Which? magazine says that, despite the claims, “there’s no such thing as free broadband”. When TalkTalk originally promised “free broadband for ever” to customers who signed up for its Talk3 International plan, the broadband proved “free” only when you signed up for 18 months at £21 per month and paid a £30 connection fee. TalkTalk has been forced to change the terms of its offers after consumers complained to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).
“There are bargains to be found, but there’s a lot of confusion,” says Ceri Stanaway, a senior researcher at Which?. “ISPs could be much more transparent about the catches. With Orange, the cap is quite low (2GB), so you’re not really getting much capacity.” This “cap” means that you may transfer only 2GB of data each month — or face being moved to a more expensive tariff.
PERFORMANCE YOU CAN’T COUNT ON
When you go shopping for broadband, value for money is only part of a ridiculously complex calculation. Performance itself requires a leap of faith. What scant information is available about download speeds is tightly guarded by the industry and couched in half-truths. Headline broadband speeds are described as “up to” 8 megs, a ludicrous term sanctioned by the ASA yet utterly without meaning when, for example, you ask Ian Livingston, the head of retail at BT, what speed you actually receive.
BT (which supplies wholesale broadband to most ISPs) boasts “up to” 8 megs for its new Max service. Yet Livingstone admitted to Doors this spring that only four out of 10 subscribers will enjoy speeds of 6 megs, while some connections could run as slowly as 256kbps, which Doors believes should not count as broadband. BT last week upped its 6-meg claim to six out of 10 subscribers.
On its Retail website, BT now displays an admirably frank disclaimer describing the many vicissitudes of ADSL (the technology that sends digital data over the UK’s crusty old copper phone lines). Zen, an award-winning small ISP, also concedes on its website that “it is likely that speeds no greater than 2 megs will be achieved at peak usage times”. Nevertheless, the whole industry continues with misleading advertising that dangles the carrot of “up to” 8 mystical megs.
The ASA’s broadband press officer, Matt Wilson, seemed unaware that, for technical reasons, no “up to 8 Mbps” claim can be fulfilled: “If some people can get 8Mbps, then it’s fair to advertise that service as up to 8Mbps.” He insisted that the ASA’s role was to keep advertising truthful: “Performance issues are for Ofcom.” And Ofcom’s response? “If people are unhappy... they should contact the ASA.” Talk about passing the buck.
Although you can consult a checker at www.bt.com/broadband to assess the likely connection speed your phone line can deliver, the result is described merely as “indicative”. You can never know exactly what rate you will enjoy until after signing a contract — for 12 months, in most cases, and 18 months in, say, TalkTalk’s.
If you are unhappy, you may have little choice but to sit out your contract. “It’s almost impossible for consumers,” says Richard Webb, lead officer on e-commerce at the Trading Standards Institute. “So many promises are made, but they never tell you what you are actually going to get, only what you might get, so you can’t complain.” This is why you can’t compare broadband with gas.
Last month, the research company Epitiro reported that BT Retail was the UK’s best ADSL performer. Epitiro wouldn’t disclose raw data, and revealed only the five “best performing” providers, four of which are — surprise, surprise — Epitiro clients. “We can’t make the data available, as that is what customers pay for,” said the company’s CEO, Gavin Johns. Epitiro says its results are based on firm data, though they exclude small ISPs, which often offer the fastest services.
No wonder the industry feels like a closed shop that too often blames the familiar failings of ADSL. BT Wholesale asserts that the download speeds to your home depend on at least nine often imponderable factors. They include your distance from the exchange, your ISP’s investment in its network, the local weather, the location of the site you are accessing and how well “the internet” is performing that day. Poor internal wiring, electrical noise and low-quality hardware can all affect performance, says BT.
“Up to” nine imponderables! Nine ready-made don’t-blame-me excuses that your ISP, or BT Wholesale, can invoke. “The ISPs use the technical limitations to hide speed restrictions on their networks, then blame slow speeds on the ADSL technology or other aspects of the equation, such as distance,” says Ian Fogg, senior broadband analyst at Jupiter Research. TalkTalk, for example, used such an argument to explain why few of its 8-meg customers were receiving a faster service than its 2-meg subscribers.
Don’t even raise the topic of “traffic-shaping”, a means of either forcing too many customers over limited bandwidth or throttling speeds for bandwidth hogs, especially peer-to-peer file-sharers. Few ISPs want to tell you about this dark art.
“Nearly all ISPs are shaping traffic in one way or another. It’s the only way we can ensure a good service for everyone during peak times,” says Brian Trevaskiss, communications manager at PlusNet. Tiscali says it “reserves the right to manage internet applications” as it sees fit. Pipex says streaming video is routinely throttled, which could hamper consumers enjoying sites such as YouTube.
With so many factors influencing the delivery of broadband, the performance of any ISP inevitably fluctuates wildly from month to month. ADSLGuide’s Ferguson warns: “Following the herd to the cheapest or most popular offer only leads to frustration.”
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
The broadband industry is certainly undergoing a volcanic upheaval — even the giant AOL is on the brink of getting out of broadband in the UK. In the scrum for customers, ISPs of all sizes must cut corners, and the new triple-play bundled services could spell doom for small, specialist ISPs. A PlusNet official says: “ISPs that don’t offer phone or other services will be dust in six months’ time.”
BT’s chief executive, Ben Verwaayen, admitted last week: “There will be a market rationalisation on the horizon. Broadband is like any other market. There is glory for only a handful.”
Meanwhile, bargain-hunters should beware. Doors calls for ISPs to:
Banish the phrase “up to” a specific speed and sell domestic broadband with a minimum guarantee of service.
Ditch the fallacy of “unlimited” caps on up- and downloading and make “fair usage” policies unambiguous.
Come clean about traffic management.
Provide consumers with independent analysis of ISPs’ performance.
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