Ofcom has published the results for its monitoring of UK broadband speeds over the last six months, the main headline being that while speeds have increased by 10% from 6.2Mbps to 6.8Mbps the gap between the advertised speed and what consumers actually get has increased.

This widening gap is because of the packages that people are subscribed to, either through their own choice, or provider wide upgrades as new technologies like ADSL2+ are adopted. Some 47% of residential users were on a product with advertised speeds above 10Mbps in May 2011, compared to 42% in November 2010. The rise of the faster product options can be seen dramatically when you see that only 8% of users were on a product advertised over the 10Mbps mark. In terms of advertising, Ofcom calculate that the average speed was 15Mbps, though there is no data on what the average speed (or range of speeds) that was communicated to customers during the sign-up process was, which is the current mechanism for ensuring the consumer gets a reasonable idea of what is possible with the connection.

The table below shows the average download throughput speed compared through providers at different times of the day, and with comparison to November / December 2010.

* These figures may be based on smaller sample sizes or normalisation could not be as effective, so caution is advised.

The figures for the Virgin Media 30Mbps product, are not wrong, these are what the report states, and reflect the common practice with Virgin Media to over connect the product, e.g. their 50Meg service actually connects at 53Mbps. Though why the 30Meg product should perform so well relatively in comparison to the other Virgin Media products is unknown.

The various ADSL and ADSL2+ products actually stand up pretty well, when you consider that only around 15 to 25% of users will get above 11Mbps with ADSL2+ (up to 24Mbps) and above 6Mbps with ADSL (up to 8Mbps).

In terms of this gap between advertised and actual speeds, Ofcom is still backing its Typical Speeds Range (TSR) which is meant to show the range of speeds that at least half of a provider’s customers receive. Whether CAP and BCAP (the committees that are due to announce results of an investigation into the use of ‘up to’ in broadband speeds advertising) will agree is unknown, but we are likely to find out in early Autumn when their report is due. Given the regional variations in speed recently announced by Ofcom, we might end up having to see different figures used for different parts of the UK. One big area of concern will be how the new speed range is measured, and how other providers can verify another provider’s claims. One danger is that a change to the advertising regime after ten years of broadband advertising may actually further confuse people, e.g. that the 10 to 20% getting the better speeds currently, may be wary of switching to a provider that is now only able to show speeds below what the user can get.

For those people living in an area where the Openreach FTTC services are available, if they order from BT Infinity, some are confusingly offered a product that is not Infinity, but a differently named product because the speed estimates suggest 15Mbps or slower is all they will get. This appears to be part of an expectation management plan, but also allows BT Retail to ensure its speed claims in advertising for BT Infinity stand up to scrutiny. Invariably though people with FTTC estimates of under 15Mbps do connect at a lot faster speed.

Another change that is quietly coming into play on July 27th is a change to the Ofcom Broadband Speeds Code of Practice:

Instead of being given a single speed estimate for a broadband line at sign-up, a range of speeds based on lines of similar length should be given.

The option for customers to leave their provider without penalty if they receive a maximum line speed which is significantly lower than the bottom of the range of the estimated range, and ISPs are not able to fix this. This would apply for the first three months of the contract.

While a get out clause from a contract is a good option, with bundles and the use of fully unbundled lines by providers like TalkTalk and Sky the problems of moving, and trying to retain some elements of the bundle may mean people stay put. Another issue is what are the ISPs expected to do to fix a slow line speed and who should bear the cost of doing this? All too often the reason why one line is connecting at a slower than expected speed is the state of the telephone wiring in a property, and as this is the consumers responsibility, there is lots of scope for buck passing. We should emphasise that Ofcom appears to be talking about line speed, i.e. the connection speed reported by the modem on the end of the phone line, fibre connection or cable.

While this Ofcom report builds on the picture from the last report, it neglects once more anyone but the major providers and ignores the fact that there are other providers of the BT Openreach FTTC products. We understand that their numbers may be smaller than those on BT Infinity, but some indication of how they perform would be welcome.

A bigger issue with the report is the fact it is does not address traffic management issues. This is particularly important at peak times, which generally starts at around 4pm each day with performance worsening until late in the evening. Traffic management is used by the majority of the providers in the Ofcom results, but one could get the impression that its effect is almost nil, without a slight decrease in speeds at peak time. There may be several reasons for this:

Selection of candidates for testing, may preclude the heavier bandwidth users (those most likely to be traffic managed).

Protocols used by the testing hardware are rarely traffic managed.

Providers may be able to detect or already know which lines are running the test hardware, and ensure priority in their network.

The issue of the heavier users not being included in the testing, is particularly relevant for Virgin Media who apply restrictions on their S,M,L and XL products based on what you have done previously that day. Users on the 30Mbps product will lose 75% of their download speed if they exceed 10GB between 10am and 3pm, or 5GB between 4pm and 9pm with the restriction lasting for five hours. Given a HD video on XBox 360 or the PS3 can be 8GB in size, it is easy to see people breaking this figure.

Of course Virgin Media is not the only one to use traffic management, BT Retail, Plusnet, O2, Sky and TalkTalk all use management either applied equally to all customers, or based on some rule set. For the average consumer who does not understand the difference between the various protocols used to transfer data it can be confusing. Of course the reply from providers is invariably that traffic management or fair use policies only affect 1 to 5% of customers, but how does anyone know this is the case?

Kind Regards,
John Gillborn