Voluntary Code of Practice on Broadband Speeds: Mystery shopping research
The Voluntary Code of Practice on Broadband Speeds ('the Code'), which was revised in July 2010 following our mystery shopping research in 2009 and which came into effect in July 2011 , requires internet service providers ("ISPs") who are signatories to provide clear and accurate information on the broadband services available to consumers at the point of sale. As part of our monitoring of the revised Code, Ofcom commissioned market research agency GfK to conduct mystery shopping research which took place between 17 December 2011 and 19 January 2012 to assess compliance with the Code through ISPs' sales processes, both online and over the telephone. The full research report is attached as an Annex, and we outline below the key findings of the report and Ofcom's planned next steps.
The principal duty of Ofcom, in carrying out its functions, is to further the interests of citizens in relation to communications matters and to further the interests of consumers in relevant markets, where appropriate by promoting competition. In light of these duties, Ofcom has taken a number of initiatives to ensure that the way in which broadband is sold works in the interests of consumers. These initiatives are:
- Introducing and updating the Code which ensures that consumers get clear information on the maximum speeds available on their particular line (and other speed-related information) with the aim to help them make more informed purchasing decisions.
- Publishing regular research which allows consumers to compare fixed-line broadband performance across different providers, technologies, geographies and time of day, and conducting similar research on mobile broadband performance.
- Publishing consumer guides to advise consumers on how to improve their broadband speeds and get the best deal on their broadband service.
- Creating a 'UK broadband map' which allows consumers to see at a glance how their region compares across a range of metrics with other areas.
- Ensuring that there is a clear regulatory framework in place for the deployment of superfast broadband infrastructure.
- Discussions with the Advertising Standards Authority and their Advertising Code-making bodies CAP and BCAP on the clarity of broadband advertising following our response to the CAP and BCAP consultation on reviews of "Up to" and "Unlimited" claims and the publication by CAP and BCAP of guidance in September 2011. The reviews have in our view led to significant improvements in how broadband is advertised, and we continue to have an interest in how ISPs advertise their broadband services to ensure that consumers are given clear, consistent and accurate information.
The broadband market has changed significantly since we undertook these measures: speeds have improved significantly due to greater take up of superfast broadband, prices have fallen, and there is now a greater choice of speeds and packages than ever before. With the wide range of packages available, it remains important that ISPs provide adequate information to allow consumers to make informed choices.
The Code, which was originally introduced in 2008, is designed to ensure consumers get the information on broadband speeds which they require in order to make informed purchasing decisions. Pursuant to its 7th principle, which requires Ofcom to monitor compliance with the Code, we first conducted a mystery shopping exercise in 2009 to assess whether ISPs who had signed up to the Code were complying with both the spirit and the letter of the Code. The research found that ISPs were not always doing so. In particular, we found that mystery shoppers were often given inaccurate information about the access line (i.e. maximum) speeds they could expect to receive on their line. As a result, a strengthened Code was introduced in 2010 which made a number of changes, including requiring ISPs to give consumers broadband speeds estimates in the form of a range rather than as a single point estimate where there was large variation in achievable speeds (most notably for ADSL broadband). Once this revised Code was fully implemented by ISPs in July 2011, we conducted a further mystery exercise between December 2011 and January 2012 to assess compliance with it. The results are published in the Annex.
1.2 Key findings
Overall, we have found that the level of compliance by ISP signatories with the revised Code has improved since our previous mystery shopping exercise in 2009. The results show better information available to consumers through online sales channels, particularly ISPs' own websites. Information on speeds provided over telephone sales channels was less complete than for online channels, particularly for some ISPs.
The research found that the large majority of mystery shoppers received some sort of speed estimate (either in the form of a range or a point estimate, or both) in accordance with the requirements of the Code (see Figure 1 below). Overall, in 93% of telephone enquiries made an estimate was given to the mystery shopper. Also, in nearly three quarters of cases the mystery shoppers were given a range of speeds over the phone, rather than a single point estimate, as required by the Code. Sky and Karoo were the most likely to provide estimated speed ranges, with at least 90% of callers to these ISPs being given a range estimate over the phone.
Figure 1: Percentage of "shops" receiving a speed estimate on telephone
However, we found weaknesses in telephone sales processes for some ISPs, particularly in mystery shoppers not being given speeds information without explicitly requesting it. The 2nd Principle of the Code requires that ISPs must provide all consumers with information on their estimated access line speed as early as practicable within the sales process, and in any event before consumers are asked for a Migration Access Code (MAC) or personal financial details, regardless of whether this is conducted over the phone, in a retail shop or through the ISP's website.
Broadband speed estimates were provided without prompting in 59% of all telephone calls. Karoo (76%), Sky (72%) and Plusnet (67%) were most likely to provide speed estimates without prompting. Compared to those ISPs, TalkTalk (47%) and BT Total Broadband (48%) were significantly less likely to provide unprompted speeds information.
Some ISPs have said that mystery shoppers may have asked the telephone sales agent for speeds information in instances where the agent would have provided the information without prompting later in the sales process. For example, BT indicated that in general their agents only provide detailed speeds estimates once the customer has agreed to proceed with an order (and the call switches from a 'pre-sales' to a 'sales' call). However, as indicated above, access line speed estimates must be provided "as early as practicable within the sales process" which means well before an order is agreed.
We also tested the quality of speeds information available on ISPs' websites. All signatories to the Code with the exception of two small providers offered a speed checker which provided estimated access line speeds in the form of a range.
1.3 Next steps
We have discussed the mystery shopping results with the largest ISPs. In particular, we asked the poorer performing ISPs why unprompted speeds information was not always given by their telephone sales agents. Some ISPs told us that there may be specific reasons why mystery shoppers could not be offered an estimated speed, i.e. in some cases, the ISP did not offer a service in that area, or in the case of fully unbundled lines, information on the mystery shopper's line would not necessarily be recorded on the ISP's database used to give speed estimates.
Some ISPs indicated that their shortfalls in compliance reflected the need for better training amongst their sales staff. Others suggested that, as explained in paragraph 9 above, because the mystery shoppers made general enquiry calls (akin to window shopping) rather than actual purchase calls, speed estimates would not generally be given unless the sales agent believed that the shopper wanted to proceed with the order. We have reiterated to all ISPs that speed estimates should be provided as early as practicable in the sales process, as required by the Code, and have discussed with BT and other ISPs the changes which are necessary in their practices and instructions to sales agents to ensure that this issue is addressed.
We have also made clear to ISPs that the Principle of the Code (and its underlying spirit) of providing information on speeds as early as practicable should be adhered to regardless of whether a caller has yet indicated an intention to proceed with the order. We have urged all ISPs to ensure improved training for their telephone sales agents regarding the provision of information to consumers as required by the Code.
We will be conducting further mystery shopping in the future to monitor ISPs' performance and to assess whether weaker areas of compliance exposed by the current research have been addressed. We will also undertake separate research to assess consumers' general experiences of buying broadband to understand how these experiences could be improved. Further, we will review the Code as a whole to ensure that its provisions are still appropriate for consumers' needs in the fast changing broadband market, including discussing with ISPs as to whether the Code needs amending to take into account broadband packages which allow more accurate spot estimates to be provided, and therefore where it is less relevant to give an estimated speed in the form of a range.
In the meantime, we have updated our consumer guides on choosing a broadband service and on broadband speeds to help consumers ask the right questions before getting broadband or switching provider. Consumers who are unhappy with their speeds should contact their ISP - most ISPs have extensive information and advice on how to improve broadband speeds available on their websites, while others have taken proactive steps to help customers improve speeds. For example, BT has for some years given their customers a free 'broadband accelerator' which reduces interference from telephone wiring and thereby improves broadband speeds in many cases. TalkTalk meanwhile has a tailored speed optimisation service available through its website and, in some cases, arranges engineer visits to help customers improve speeds. Customers who are unhappy with their current speed could also consider switching to a faster package or provider, particularly if superfast broadband services are available to them (63% of UK households now have access to superfast broadband ).
As choice continues to grow, consumers may need assistance in choosing the best package and service for them. Seven websites are currently accredited under Ofcom's Price Comparison Accreditation Scheme covering price comparison calculators for fixed line 'phone, broadband and mobile: Simplify Digital, BroadbandChoices, Broadband.co.uk and Cable.co.uk are the Ofcom accredited sites covering broadband.
We consider that the measures we have already taken help ensure that consumers have access to the information about broadband speeds required to make informed purchasing decisions, and we will continue to monitor and develop the following:
- the Code, to include measures to ensure the Code remains appropriate for superfast broadband;
- information about traffic management policies, and the effectiveness of the 2011 industry code of practice on traffic management to provide 'Key Fact Indicators' ;
- research and publication of information about the actual performance delivered by fixed and mobile broadband providers to consumers throughout the UK;
- the use of speed claims in broadband advertising and the effectiveness of the new advertising guidance;
- our accreditation of price comparison web sites; and
- our consumer guides to choosing broadband services.