How have CAP's rules changed broadband speeds?

1 May 2012   By Neil Hawkins

fibre broadband optics

Last year, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) laid down tougher new rules governing how broadband providers were allowed to advertise their products.

The changes came into force at the beginning of April this year and were designed to ensure that ISPs could no longer pull the wool over the eyes of potential customers by promising speeds that would never be realistically attainable.

One month on we're taking a closer look to see what effect, if any, the changes have had.

A quick refresh

In case you've totally forgotten the details (although, let's face it, who would forget something as important as this?) the new broadband advertising guidance for speeds said that broadband providers should only advertise "maximum speeds based on actual experience".

In practice, the guidelines suggested, that should mean speeds which are actually attainable by at least 105 of customers.

Which makes perfect sense, after all, car manufacturers cannot claim a car does 190mph*.

*If driven down a very steep hill at full throttle while being pushed by a small army of angry Rhinoceros.

Disappointingly for many, including Ofcom, the changes didn't quite sound the death knell for the ubiquitous broadband catchphrase 'up to xxMb'.

But they did promise that ISPs would have to paint a more realistic portrait of their service and speed levels and, some consumer groups hoped, broadband providers would end up dishing out much more useful information, such as speed quotations, for consumers individually.

How ISPs reacted

To many people, all that will have appeared to have changed so far will be a few headline numbers on billboards.

Previously, with most broadband providers advertising 'up to 24Mb' packages, price was the main differential between them.

Now, though, the new CAP rules mean that there are clear differences and strategies in the way that broadband providers seek to advertise products.

Making 'up to' an average

The least disruptive way broadband providers have altered their dodgy advertising habits has been to simply reduce the headline speeds quoted in adverts to reflect the top speed actually received by at least 10% of customers.

This has been the favoured tactic of BT and all who sail in and on her network, which includes Plusnet and Madasafish.

BT's standard broadband and BT's Infinity fibre used to advertise top speeds of 'up to 20Mb' and 'up to 40Mb' respectively.

Now, the same deals are advertised as 'up to 16Mb' and 'up to 38Mb'.

Be and O2 Broadband who share a separate network have also chosen this path and are also advertising 'up to 16Mb' despite the fact that according to Ofcom research on average speeds their customers are likely to get slightly faster speeds.

... or not

Slightly confusingly, however, not every ISP has taken the same approach.

At the time of writing, Zen Internet, TalkTalk Fibre broadband deals and AOL Broadband were all still using the 'old', and controversial, 'up to' system.

Removing speed information

Nearly all other providers have gone for a more personalised approach, consigning headline figures to the dustbin of history and replacing them with messages along the lines of:

"We'll give you the fastest broadband your phone line can handle. The top speed will depend on the quality of your phone line and where you live." - TalkTalk


"Fastest download speeds we can provide." - Post Office

This approach, while it has the advantage of being direct, requires the consumer to click through to a speed test before they have any idea at all of what sort of speed to expect.

Adding more qualifiers

Finally, the CAP guidelines have prompted many ISPs to add far more qualifying information whenever they mention broadband speeds.

For example, here's the extra information BT added to their site this month:

"Up to speeds are based on the technology used to deliver broadband to your home and are faster at peak times. The actual speed you'll get depends on your phone line and how far you are from the telephone exchange. Up to 16Mb speeds available if you live in a high speed area. Use our online speed checker to get your personalised broadband speed before you order."

So: have consumers benefited?

Yes and no.

While the changes to the CAP rules seem like a step in the right direction, towards much more accurate speed adverts, some worry that the new rules will just lead to further confusion for consumers.

"End users could end up having to digest and decipher a multitude of different speed statements, based on national or regional campaigns, or peak- and off-peak times," Darren Farnden, Head of Marketing for UK ISP Entanet said just a few days prior to the new rules coming into force.

"Additionally, we have concerns over ISPs rejecting orders from rural locations in a bid to keep their headline speeds high," he added.

We'd be surprised to hear any reports of ISPs, certainly large providers, rejecting orders due to the effect it could have on average speeds but this is a concern that BT have raised in the past.

On the other hand, the CAP changes have brought advertised broadband speeds closer to those in the real world, a positive result for consumers.

In addition, more broadband providers are dealing with customers on a case by case basis, giving tailored speed information upon enquiry. This is a very welcome measure.

However, as we've discovered above, without enforcement, the new rules are at risk of simply being ignored by broadband providers and therefore will fail to bring any increased benefit to consumers at all.

Which broadband deals are available in your area?

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