It's time to break down the broadband bull

By: John McGarvey

Date: 8 March 2011

Fibre optic cables

By international standards, UK broadband isn't exactly super-speedy. But the worst thing is that when you buy it, often you have little idea what you're going to get.

Sure, your package might offer speeds 'up to 8Mbps', 'up to 16Mbps', or even (optimistically), 'up to 24Mbps'. But even if you know what 'Mbps' means, that 'up to' introduces massive uncertainty. You might end up with only a tenth of the promised speed, or worse.

It wouldn't be allowed elsewhere

In other industries, this wouldn't be allowed. Imagine if your car - which an enthusiastic salesman promised would do 'up to 100mph' - actually maxed out at 35.

You wouldn't stand for it. Yet with broadband, this kind of advertising is the norm.

The use of 'up to' stems from the way in which ADSL - which is how most of us get our broadband - works. It uses copper wires which were never designed for the purpose. And that makes speeds unpredictable.

We're relying on 1911 hardware to deliver 2011 connectivity. So if you're miles from a telephone exchange or your line is old and crackly, you won't get a good connection.

We want honest broadband

The obvious way to make our broadband better would be to introduce a modern, up-to-date broadband network. With guaranteed speeds, you could forget any 'up to' hassles.

And that is happening, albeit slowly. Some places can already get a fast fibre optic connection via Virgin Media or through BT's fledgling Infinity network. But those services won't reach many of us anytime soon.

So, while the rest of us are waiting for a fibre optic connection, ADSL providers need to shape up their act:

  1. Set charges to reflect real-world speeds. If I'm only going to get 10% of the advertised speed, I should only have to pay 10% of the advertised cost. That might give providers some incentive to improve things.
  2. Quote realistic speeds in advertising, not best case ones. Only a tiny proportion of broadband customers get the promised speeds (if any), so it's time advertising changed to reflect this. Even Ofcom seems to agree.
  3. Be open about fair use. Many packages limit what you can download each month to reduce network load. Hit your limit and your connection will crawl. But these limits are hard to understand. How much is 10GB?

Nowadays, internet access isn't just important to run your business. It's essential. So is it wrong to insist that broadband companies are open, honest and upfront about the speed of their services?

(Image of fibre optics from adrienneserra under a Creative Commons Attribution licence.)

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