Broadband advertising: the 'up to' debate
Think about misleading broadband advertising and it's more than likely that one term in particular will spring to mind: 'up to'.
Since the very earliest days of broadband, commentators and consumer groups have criticised this speeds signifier as vague at best and, at worst, meaningless.
Yet it remains widely used. Why?
Ideal vs. actual speeds
The term 'up to' has historically been used to distinguish ideal speeds, the very best speed a line could deliver in ideal conditions, from actual speeds, those which are actually experienced by users.
Broadband, especially ADSL and ADSL2+ broadband, as we explain further here, can be affected by a myriad of outside factors including interference, distance, contention and fair use policies, as well as less tangible, and far less steady, elements such as the time of day.
Giving an entirely accurate speed estimate is impossible; 'up to' is a compromise.
Some said, however, that it was a compromise skewed heavily in the ISPs' favour.
In 2007, for example, a Which? investigation into broadband speeds couldn't find a single participant who achieved their line's 'ideal' 8Mb speed, even for a second.
When it's impossible to actually get the ideal, many said, the phrase 'up to' is misleading.
As a result, new rules were implemented and, as of April 2012, the advertised 'up to' speed must be available to at least 10% of an ISP's customers.
That's why we used to see broadband providers offering 'up to' 20Mb and 24Mb deals and now those same providers offer 'up to' 16Mb and 18Mb deals.
You can see more on how this works here.
Who decides on broadband adverts?
Here's a bit more on how we've come to that 'at least 10%' rule.
The broadband providers
When we think about why 'up to' continues, despite widespread opposition, the first point of call should be the broadband providers.
Although some providers have criticised 'up to' down the years they have largely continued to use it, most likely because doing otherwise would mean advertising lower speeds.
No one wants to be only one doing that.
In fact, one of the few ISPs to stop using 'up to' are Virgin Media, largely because their cable broadband delivers about 95-98% of advertised 'up to' speeds already. They want to show off.
The provider's Stop the Broadband Speed Con campaign argued that other ISPs should do the same.
Unsurprisingly, they didn't bite and all Virgin got for their trouble was in trouble with the ASA.
No other provider has gone the Virgin Media route but some, like TalkTalk and Sky, have at times taken a different road: not advertising speeds at all and relying entirely on the personalised 'speed checker' to give their potential customers an estimate.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) have carved quite a niche for themselves as unlikely heroes of broadband advertising.
At the end of August 2010, for example, the body ruled against a BT advert which claimed that the company was, "rolling out up to 20Mb speeds to give you consistently faster broadband throughout the day even at peak times".
The ASA ruled that these claims could not be backed up by BT and were therefore likely to mislead consumers.
Commenting on its ruling the ASA stated: "We noted BT's new service was available to fewer than half of all households and the roll-out, increasing that figure to 75%, was anticipated to take around two years."
Adding, "we had not seen sufficient evidence to support the claim that BT's new broadband service was consistently faster than its existing 8Mb service, even at peak times."
Here, the ASA has made life difficult for itself.
This part of its ruling effectively says that companies should not be advertising new broadband technologies as faster unless faster means faster for all users. That is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to measure.
The ASA has upheld similar complaints against Sky, Orange and Virgin Media down the years yet it has never ruled that ISPs must abandon 'up to'.
Under pressure to come up with a clearer code of standards in this area, the ASA's policy arm, the Committee for Advertising Practice (CAP) released new rules on broadband advertising in September 2011.
But getting rid of 'up to' wasn't even close to being among the proposals and some have argued that broadband adverts are no clearer as a result.
In 2010, major providers came under fire for failing to follow Ofcom's speed code including failing to make it clear that speed adverts constituted an 'up to' amount, not a promise for the top speed.
By 2011, the regulator had thrown its weight behind a ban on 'up to' adverts but, as we've seen above, that advice was simply ignored by the ASA.
How important are speeds?
If you really want to put the cat among the pigeons it's also worth noting that speed isn't, by itself, much of an indicator of connection quality.
The best broadband for downloading isn't necessarily the fastest deal because, within that speed, provider's manage traffic.
So even the country's fastest packages (as we list here), which are more likely to live up to their advertising speed promises, might not necessarily always offer the best performance as users go about their day to day online activities.
For more on why that is see our guide to choosing broadband for the fastest downloads - available here.
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