An important change is due to be introduced tomorrow as part of Ofcom’s new Voluntary Codes of Practice on Broadband Speed (VCoP), which will require the largest UK ISPs to give you more information about your estimated line performance and make it easier to exit a contract penalty free (if faults cannot be fixed).
At present if you’re a customer of an ISP that supports the existing 2015 (residential) and 2016 (small businesses) code – See Ofcom’s Codes of Practice – then the provider must estimate (at the point of sale) the access line speeds that you’re likely to achieve at home. On top of that they must also try to resolve any problems when speeds fall significantly below the estimate.
The existing code thus ensures that consumers receive a “personal estimate” of their expected download speed during the sign-up process to a new ISP, which reflects the 20th and 80th percentile speeds to be provided (i.e. an estimated range of possible upper and lower download performance for your connection).
Providers must also supply, upon request, the Minimum Guaranteed Access Line Speed (MGALS) for your line (this reflects the slowest 10% of similar users). The MGALS level is important because ISPs that fail to resolve any significant speed problems (i.e. if your speed stays below the MGALS level) must offer customers the right to downgrade or exit their contract (penalty free).
The New 2019 Rules
Last year Ofcom announced that they had revised the rules so that they could be applied to a wider selection of ISPs and give consumers more information about their estimated connection performance. In short, the revised code requires ISPs to inform customers about their MGALS speed upfront (instead of on request), along with details about upload performance and the speeds that people can expect at peak times.
* The code has been expanded to include ultrafast Cable (Virgin Media) and “Full Fibre” (FTTP/H) broadband providers (it already covers copper ADSL and hybrid-fibre FTTC (VDSL2 or G.fast) based services).
* There is a key difference for Cable and Full Fibre providers, where speed degradation is not normally affected by the length of your line. For those ISPs the MGALS speed will be at least 50% of the advertised rate of the package instead of 10%. “This will protect those customers who receive speeds significantly below expectations, while still encouraging ISPs to invest in improving their networks,” said Ofcom.
* Estimates for upload speed must now be included, although the MGALS rule only applies to download performance (Ofcom promised to look at this again in the next review because “we did not consider that poor upload speeds were, in themselves, likely to affect most users’ experiences to the degree that a general right to exit was warranted at this stage“).
* The new code must reflect the impact of network contention during busy peak-times (8-10pm for residential customers and 12-2pm for businesses). Speeds may sometimes get a little slower during busy periods because more people are online and related connections need to share their network capacity between many users in order to be affordable (experiences vary between ISPs).
* Providers must now show the line’s MGALS download speed before sale (at present you only receive the MGALS figure upon request).
* Providers will be given 1 month to resolve a problem where the speed falls below the MGALS level and if they fail then the customer must be allowed to exit their contract, penalty free.
* In order to deliver a normally available speed estimate based on peak time performance, providers will now be required to test the actual speeds of a statistically meaningful panel of customers on each broadband package during peak time. As a result some ISPs may add special connection monitoring code to their bundled routers (e.g. BT are testing this) or use third-party kit to perform a similar task.
Last year Ofcom gave ISPs 12 months to adapt to the new code (here) and the changes will now begin to be enforced. Some providers, such as Virgin Media, are already prepared for the changes (they work with SamKnows to monitor end users via custom modified routers), but others have had to develop new router code and systems to handle it.
In general consumers should now expect to receive a performance prediction like the one pictured directly below, which will form part of your order process.
The new code is only applicable to ISPs that actually sign-up to it (voluntary) and at the time of writing the following broadband providers have already agreed to support Ofcom’s changes.
Readers will no doubt notice the absence of medium sized ISPs like Vodafone and Zen Internet, both of which are members of the original 2015 code, as well as the almost total lack of any smaller providers (except Lothian Broadband).
One of the reasons for this is because smaller ISPs have found the new approach to be very challenging, not least in terms of cost. In particular the requirement for ISPs to carry out speedtests, so as to create a normally available speed value, can be quite a difficult thing to introduce (some ISPs have been quoted hundreds of thousands to roll-out one such solution, which is unaffordable at the smaller end).
On this front Ofcom seems to overlook that not all ISPs bundle a broadband router with their packages and not all of those that do are able to modify the code in such an extensive way. Meanwhile many others lack the resources or access needed to modify the firmware of the kit they supply. The outcome could be that new entrants and smaller ISPs actually end up being discouraged from voluntarily joining Ofcom’s code.
However we have seen some companies, such as ASSIA (here), introduce new router-side systems that could make such monitoring more cost effective, but it remains to be seen how much support they will attract. On the other hand this could also give end-users a lot of useful information about their real connection performance, which would be most welcome.
Finally, consumers who suffer a problem and elect to exit their contract penalty free should be cautious. Simply swapping ISP may not resolve the problem if your issue is caused by the underlying physical network operator (e.g. Openreach) and you switch to another provider on the same infrastructure.
Just for context we’ve pasted some of the text from Ofcom’s related High-Level Testing Principles document, which sets out the requirements for how ISPs are supposed to conduct this sort of testing.
Each panellist must have a unit capable of running the appropriate test software that can measure download and upload speeds received at the customer premises equipment (CPE). The ISP may run additional quality tests if they wish to do so, but for the purposes of the code measuring download and upload speeds will be sufficient.
The software must perform daily tests for each panellist during peak time (8-10pm for residential services, 12-2pm for business) and the quiet hour (the time at which the ISP expects the network traffic to be least contended). ISPs must ensure that tests are spread out across each of these periods.
To determine the maximum speed achieved on the panellist’s line, ISPs may test throughout the day rather than solely in the expected quiet hour.
The data used to calculate congestion must be updated at least quarterly, drawing on the previous three months’ speed measurements, although ISPs may update more frequently if they wish to do so.
The download and upload speed tests should not be run when user traffic is detected by the unit, as this could result in a negative impact on the performance experienced by the user, and may also compromise the test results.
To avoid detriment to panellists, the data used for the tests must not be included in the panellists’ data allowance (if any).
To assess the capacity of the user’s broadband connection, up to three concurrent transmission control protocol (TCP) connections must be used.
The download and upload tests will consist of downloading and uploading files over a duration of 5 seconds. The application layer protocol must be http 1.1 … The files to be used for the testing will be stored on an Ofcom webserver, from where the ISPs can retrieve them for use.
The document notes that ISPs with smaller customer bases (generally fewer than 20,000 per product) or narrow geographic coverage are told to discuss suitable alternative approaches with Ofcom, which may include sampling by technology, rather than by product.