Are you entitled to lower prices for slow broadband?

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"MY broadband is pathetically slow - should my provider let me pay less?"

So many factors go into the eventual speed of your broadband that providers can take a limited amount of responsibility.

At the moment, on the whole, not only can customers experiencing very poor speeds not pay less, providers are unlikely to release them from a long contract to try their luck with another provider.

Should providers be more accountable for the service they provide?

Can you pay less?

One of our readers got in touch with this question after consistently receiving speeds of around 0.7Mb on an ADSL ('up to' 16Mb) connection.

Accessing iPlayer - one of the main reasons she wanted an internet connection - is impossible, our reader said, and the provider refused to help.

Could broadband users in this situation, and we know there are a lot of them out there, pay less?

The rules: need to know

Your contract

Most broadband providers in the UK advertise an 'up to' speed - the top speed at least 10% of customers can receive, more information here - and some simply promise 'the best speeds your line can provide'.

Right from the off, then, most are keeping expectations pretty low.

Take a look into any broadband contract and you'll find that providers cover their backs even more than that.

Here's an excerpt from BT's broadband contract, for example:
"We aim to provide a continuous, high-quality service but we do not guarantee either the quality of the service or that the service will be available at all times."

Communications codes of practice

However, it's not totally hopeless: most of the UK's major ISPs are signed up to Ofcom's voluntary code of practice on broadband speeds.

Under that code, broadband providers need to have "a robust process" for identifying and either fixing, or advising you on how to fix, any speed problems.

The code continues: "If... the customer continues to receive an access line speed significantly lower than the estimate provided at point of sale the ISPs should offer the customer an alternative broadband package."

In other words, technically broadband providers should decrease your monthly fee when speeds are bad.

In practice, however, most ISPs don't have lower speed packages nowadays.

When the rules were first drawn up perhaps we'd see providers offering dial up, up to 2Mb, up to 8Mb and up to 20Mb on a graduated pricing scale but now most simply offer 'best effort' ADSL deals.

In that case they're not obligated to offer a lower cost alternative.

Cancelling and switching to another provider is, of course, always an option and there are rules surrounding cancellation under both distance selling regulations and Ofcom regulations on contracts.

In addition, those that are most likely to suffer from poor speeds - households which are far from an exchange, for example - may benefit the least from switching since it's highly likely that what is now the UK's best broadband service, fibre, won't be available to them.

Should you pay less?

In sum, while broadband providers are technically obligated to offer a remedy or lower cost deal to those experiencing poor speeds in practice they either won't or can't.

So should Ofcom or a trade association step in? Are they likely to?

The case for pay by speed

The case for paying less for poor broadband speeds is primarily one of fairness: it doesn't seem fair that two households paying the same price for their connection are getting such different services, to the extent that it changes the number of services they can access.

In addition, there is an argument that the threat of earning less revenue would encourage broadband providers to improve speeds for struggling households.

Providers would rather have customers paying more and customers would rather have higher speeds, the argument goes, so the system should reward that dynamic.

All this seems common sense.

And the case against

However, there are a number of problems with this common sense 'by speed' pricing model.

In terms of fairness, those with poor speeds may resent paying more than their peers but letting them pay less may simply reverse the problem: suddenly, those with better speeds, but who don't particularly care about them, could be the resentful ones.

The idea that the model would light a fire under broadband providers is also not as straightforward as it first appears.

Broadband providers already make less profit on many households with poor speeds.

The least competitive exchanges are the most expensive for providers to access, for example, which is why some of the most rural households actually end up on packages which are significantly more expensive than the UK's cheapest deals.

The cost of upgrading or improving broadband equipment in problem areas can already outweigh the amount of profit providers can make there.

Reducing their profit margin, ISPs would no doubt argue, makes improving speeds on the network level even less appealing.

This measure could have the opposite effect to the one intended: shoving households with poor speeds further into a ghetto where providers can feel free to just ignore them.

Finally, on a practical level, there's the issue of effectively measuring and recording broadband speeds.

If the household and the provider disagree - who's right? If the household is only experiencing really poor speeds during peak times - where would both parties stand?

Will they act?

All in all, it seems unlikely that regulators will step in to act in this way, not least because it would be extremely unpopular among providers.

However, that might be a shame because, although such a system probably wouldn't encourage providers to invest further in their network level equipment, it could push them to offer more low cost help to households.

Research has shown that decent routers, better placement of wireless access points in the home and simple measures to speed up internet enabled devices can significantly improve experienced broadband speeds even for households with very poor access.

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