UK ISPs should swallow their pride and start being honest about broadband

At a recent industry event, a number of executives trotted out the latest variation on that old maxim of the telecoms industry: “Customers don’t really care about technical details; they just care about what technology can do.” In this instance, it was applied to broadband speeds: “Customers don’t really care that our network can’t deliver 8Mbps speeds, they just care that it allows them to access YouTube, Facebook, etc.”

Unfortunately, history has shown time and again that customers really do care about the technical details, particularly when they have been mis-sold. Anyone remember the satisfaction of surfing the BT Cellnet? Were you pleasantly surprised by the first generation of 3G phones?

Yet, several years on, few operators can resist overhyping their services. As outrage over “up to 8Mbps” DSL reached its peak in the UK, several mobile operators began marketing mobile broadband services promising speeds of “up to 3.6Mbps”. Vodafone even marketed a service offering “up to 7.2Mbps”, until it was forced by the Advertising Standards Authority to drop the claim after rival operator 3 complained that the actual download speed experienced by customers was 6.6Mbps.

Even so, it seems unlikely that many customers will even be able to experience that speed. I’ve been trialling an “up to 3.6Mbps” mobile broadband service from 3 for some weeks now and have never seen speeds pass 1.4Mbps. Most of the time they linger around 600Kbps, occasionally dropping down to dial-up rates.

On one level, it is understandable that operators have a history of being slightly vague about the technical details. Long before their products reach the market, vendors are busy hyping the capabilities of the technologies the services will rely on. Perhaps after years of disappointment, the operators cannot bear to print what their services can actually deliver on their marketing material.

This is a shame, because focusing on the technical details is one area where operators can truly excel. After years of failed attempts to become content players, fixed and mobile operators should realise that their true calling is to provide quality connectivity.

That is not to say that DSL operators should radically redesign their networks or that mobile operators should build new cell sites on every corner in order to deliver the headline speeds they promised in the first place. Rather, they should be transparent and manage consumers’ expectations, because, frankly, they have set the bar far too high.

Some positive steps have already been made in this direction. I know, for example, what speeds the 3 mobile broadband service I have been trialling has delivered because it features a software client that logs them for you. The client also keeps track of how much data has been transferred over the connection, which helps users to avoid exceeding their monthly download caps.

On the fixed-line side of the market, UK ISP PlusNet enables subscribers to access an even more detailed breakdown of their usage via an online tool. The BT-owned ISP also offers all comers an insight into traffic on its network and how it is managed on its customer-support pages.

What’s more, PlusNet provides a glimpse into how more mainstream ISPs might use the concept of quality connectivity to increase ARPU and reduce churn. The ISP markets a quality-assured service aimed at online gamers, which, at £19.99 (US$39), costs twice as much as its entry-level broadband package. It is not fanciful to imagine consumers may be willing to pay more for services that bring the same level of quality assurance to online video, particularly as the resolution and frame rate of services grow.

Regardless of the future opportunities, UK ISPs have a number of pressing reasons to start thinking about how to offer quality connectivity.

First, most have signed up to a code of conduct to inform customers of the true broadband speeds they are likely to get. Second, a wide variety of groups, from hobbyists to consumer media to Ofcom, are performing their own research on speeds, using a variety of means.

Third, even BT’s own lab tests seem to suggest that services on their next-generation ADSL2+ network will disappoint, with only half of homes covered able to access the 8Mbps speeds promised by the first generation. Given that the unbundled networks of BT’s rivals use the same copper infrastructure, its seems likely we will see similarly disappointing rates from their services.

ISPs should use this period of transition to think carefully about how they can set more realistic expectations about headline speeds, while working out ways to go above and beyond the letter of Ofcom’s code of conduct. From now on, their motto should be: “Customers really do care about the technical details, because it lets them know what they can do.”

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