Technology has developed so rapidly in recent years that most children growing up today will struggle to imagine a world without the internet or broadband. Both have revolutionised the way we communicate and access and share information. As a consequence, demand for unrestricted, instant, speedy internet access is higher than ever.

Over the last few years, advertising for broadband services has become both a source of complaint from customers and a battleground between competitors. The nature of complaints we receive fall into two categories – objections to advertising claims for broadband speed and those around usage, specifically whether or not it can be claimed to be “unlimited”. But new guidance, introduced in 2012 has led to big changes in the way these services are advertised.

What was the problem?

From streaming videos, downloading files and uploading images, the faster broadband is the more we can do and the quicker we can do it. Ads promising high speed broadband, often measured in megabits per second (Mbit/s), often prompted complaints that providers were exaggerating the speed generally experienced by the majority of people who used the service.

Why could advertisers claim they offered superfast broadband when most people didn’t get anywhere near that speed? The use of a qualification, “up to”, is often used to clarify that different customers of the same provider may achieve different broadband speeds. The variation in speeds can be negligible or highly significant depending on a number of different factors, for instance, the effect of multiple users sharing the same bandwidth on a provider’s network.

Where broadband is advertised as “unlimited” but individuals are penalised for over-use of the service, either through a financial penalty or having their broadband speed restricted, complaints to the ASA have been quick to follow.

How have we addressed this?

How can an unlimited service be subject to limits? In some instances, providers were using a “fair usage policy” to restrict or limit people who were deemed to be using their broadband service ‘excessively’. To some, any restrictions on “unlimited” broadband services are, of course, a contradiction in terms, but to the broadband providers they were keen to make sure that, for example, businesses weren’t using a residential service instead of a commercial service.

In light of this, we asked the bodies responsible for writing the Advertising Codes, the Committees of Advertising Practice, to review advertising in the telecommunications sector. As a result, two new Help Notes were published and came into effect in 2012 setting a clear framework for broadband providers on how and when “up to” and “unlimited” claims are acceptable.

What we’re doing now is ensuring ads follow the new guidance by continuing to respond to consumer or competitor concerns on these issues, setting precedents through our rulings on where the line will be drawn as well as actively monitoring ads to make sure they follow the rules. This is an on-going process.

By putting a limit on advertising claims we can have confidence that our demand for speed will be met and we can all enjoy using broadband and the many benefits it brings to individuals and businesses.

For further information, please read the ASA Hot Topic on Broadband

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