A BT advert that claimed the provider "offers better overall [broadband] performance than Sky and TalkTalk" must not be shown again, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has ruled.
BT arch nemesis Sky argued that Ofcom's research into broadband performance, the UK's largest and most comprehensive independent report on the matter, isn't sufficient evidence for BT's claim because it doesn't take performance over wi-fi into account.
The features Ofcom did measure found no "statistically significant" differences between Sky and BT, the provider said, and, furthermore, didn't actually say that BT was 'better'.
The ASA agreed with Sky on those points and BT's wrist was duly slapped.
Despite 2011 guidelines on how broadband advertisers should approach speed and usage limit claims - particularly in the case of 'unlimited' broadband deals - complaints about supposedly misleading adverts continue to pour into the advertising regulator.
Meanwhile, consumer confusion grows: a January 2013 Ofcom study found that 71% of broadband users don't know either their advertised or actual speeds.
Last month, a Broadband Choices poll found that 46% of respondents didn't understand the terms used to describe their broadband.
It's hard to see how ruling that the UK's best measure of broadband performance by provider is misleading because it doesn't include one variable - wi-fi - is helping that confusion.
Consumers may or may not use wi-fi to access their connection but they are just as likely to do so whether they're with BT or Sky and there is little difference between the wireless routers provided by the two companies.
If we accept that Ofcom's report is pretty much one of best sources of broadband information despite the fact that they don't include information on wi-fi performance, and common sense suggests we should, the truth is that BT broadband performed better than Sky's.
The Ofcom report that BT used, from November 2012, found the following differences between the two providers, based on average speeds:
|Average download speed during period|
|Maximum||24 hours||Peak time:
(up to 16Mb)
|8.6Mb to 10.7Mb||8.1Mb to 10Mb||8Mb to 10Mb|
(up to 16Mb)
|8Mb to 9.7Mb||7.5Mb to 9.1Mb||7.5Mb to 9.1Mb|
Sky might argue that those results aren't statistically significant but it's worth noting that the difference between the two was large enough for the provider to advertise up to 14Mb speeds, as opposed to BT's up to 16Mb, up until August this year.
'Up to' now refers to the providers top speed, as long as it is available to at least 10% of real users (more information).
In addition, BT did better than Sky in six other performance metrics (out of 18) including upload speeds, DNS resolution time, the amount of jitter on the network and the average amount of time it took to load web pages, according to the Ofcom report.
In another eight categories the two providers were equal; Sky did better than BT in two.
So overall we can say that BT were better or the same as Sky in 89% of the tests Ofcom carried out.
Within the constraints of an advert space and the English language, "better overall performance" doesn't seem like a bad way to express that.
Currently, broadband providers bat claims and counter claims about broadband adverts back and forth and, every couple of weeks, the ASA say that an advert should no longer be shown in its current form, often after it has stopped being shown in any case.
As of the end of last month, however, the ASA can refer cases to Camden Trading Standards, which has the power to issue legal sanctions like fines.
Any "misleading, aggressive or otherwise unfair" non broadband (i.e. print or billboard) advertising the ASA deals with could face referral, although Trading Standards are a 'legal backstop' so advertisers won't be referred lightly.
However, broadband advertisers may find themselves straying into referral since they seem to offend so persistently.
All the big broadband providers have faced frequent sanction from the advertising regulator over the years, although Virgin Media are notable for seeming to basically ask to be banned with, among many others, their anti 'up to' campaign.
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