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Voluntary Code of Practice on Broadband Speeds: mystery shopping research

Mystery shopping research

Executive Summary

Ofcom commissioned mystery shopping research to evaluate how Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are complying with the Voluntary Code of Practice on Broadband Speeds (-1-) (the Code) which was implemented in December 2008. ISPs who have signed-up to the Code commit to provide information to consumers before they enter into a contract about the maximum broadband speed they can expect on their line, and about the factors that will affect their actual speed.

The mystery shopping research shows that although more information on broadband speeds is now provided by ISPs following the introduction of the Code (-2-), information is still often not sufficient to allow consumers to have clear expectations about the broadband service they sign-up to. Of the total, 15% of the telephone mystery shoppers were not given an estimate of their access line speed (the maximum speed a consumer will be able to get) (-3-), and 42% were only given one after prompting the sales agent near the end of the sales process. In addition, consumers are not always being given a consistent and accurate estimate of their access line speed. In some cases, ISPs gave an access line speed double that of another ISP for the same broadband line and technology. The majority of access line speed estimates given to mystery shoppers did not match (within +/-1Mbit/s) the speeds given by the BT Wholesale line checker (-4-). Our analysis shows ISPs use a variety of ways to estimate access line speeds and present such estimates to consumers.

Without consistent and accurate calculation and presentation of access line speeds, the Code cannot deliver its intended benefits to consumers. We are working with ISPs to agree a common way of calculating and presenting estimates on access line speeds and will then seek to agree changes to the Code to reflect the agreed approach. We will also seek to ensure that consumers are given their access line speed estimate earlier in the sales process, before being asked for a firm commitment to sign-up.

Some consumers find their actual access line speed is significantly below the estimate given at the time of signing-up. Currently, the Code requires that ISPs should allow customers in this position to move to a lower-speed broadband package if one is available and their problems cannot be resolved. However, as more ISPs are starting to offer only single-speed packages, such a provision may become less useful to consumers. We will hence explore with ISPs whether to allow consumers to leave before the end of their contracted period if their access line speed is significantly below the estimate provided at point of sale, and this problem cannot be adequately resolved.

If appropriate changes to the Code cannot be agreed with ISPs, Ofcom may consider launching a regulatory review to ascertain whether it is necessary and appropriate to replace the Code with formal regulation.

We aim to achieve broad agreement with ISPs by summer 2010. Once the new Code is in place we will undertake further mystery shopping research in order to assess whether ISPs are complying with it.


1.- Available at http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/telecoms/cop/broadband-speeds-cop/voluntary-codes-of-practice/.

2.- The Code was introduced in June 2008 and implemented in December 2008.

3.- Included in this 15% are 3% of mystery shoppers who were told that the relevant line checker was temporarily unavailable and 3% who were told that the relevant ISPs database did not include information on their line.

4.- Although some variation between ISPs can be expected as a result of network-specific factors, the differences we found were unlikely to be explained by this fact alone.

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