Tech

Ofcom adds new protections for consumer broadband buyers

Internet service providers (ISPs) will have to take additional steps to clarify information about broadband speeds for consumers following revisions to Ofcom’s 2015 code of practice.

The update is designed to reflect the fact that many broadband consumers frequently find that the service speed they receive is substantially below the service they think they are buying.

“We want broadband shoppers to know what they’re buying, and what speeds to expect,” said Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom consumer group director. “So, we plan to close the gap between what is advertised and what is delivered, giving customers a fuller picture before they commit to a contract.

“We are also making it easier to walk away from a contract, without penalty, when companies fail to provide the speeds they promise.”

Ofcom is proposing that ISPs provide more information at the point of sale and in contracts by reflecting the slower broadband speeds that people experience at peak times (between 8pm and 10pm), and ensuring that ISPs always provide a minimum guaranteed speed before sale. Currently, they only have to provide this information if requested and in after-sale information.

The regulator will also move to strengthen consumer rights to exit broadband contracts if speeds fall below a guaranteed minimum level, by giving ISPs a short window of time to improve the service before they must let users walk away without penalty. Currently, ISPs have an unlimited amount of time to resolve the problem before offering the right to exit, and this will now drop to one month.

Finally, the code of practice will also be extended to apply not only to broadband services delivered over copper-based phone lines, but also to cable-based networks, which can often be particularly vulnerable to constraints through overuse at peak times. This means Virgin Media customers will also be able to benefit from the enhanced protections.

“Many people seek our help each year because their slow and intermittent broadband service falls short of what their contract promised,” said Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice.

“For most people, a reliable broadband connection is a necessity – so when they don’t get what they’ve paid for, they should always have a quick and easy way out of their contract. These changes are an important step in giving consumers more power to hold their broadband provider to account for poor service.”

Richard Neudegg, head of regulation at uSwitch, said: “Giving more information on what speeds consumers can expect can be a useful move, but burying this more detailed information in each provider’s sales journey will only go so far.

“What we need to see – and what we have been calling for – is for this information to be opened up so that consumers can compare different provider speeds side by side at the point of comparison. Consumers simply want to be able to quickly and easily compare what options they have for their own home, so they can work out which service best fits their needs.”

Dan Howdle, consumer telecoms analyst at Cable.co.uk, said emphasising the slowest speed users were likely to get at peak times meant the experience would more closely match the expectation, but he questioned whether or not this would benefit most people.

“New rules on broadband speed advertising would have to be coupled with guidelines to ensure customers are informed as to how the speeds apply to the broadband usage of their household, otherwise it’s just a case of swapping one meaningless number for another,” he said.

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