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Bradbury broadband whinge unhinged

February 5, 2008

Vista busy cursor Viewers of the Gadget Show, Channel five’s consumer technology programme with Jason Bradbury, will be familiar with the follically challenged host’s stalwart campaign for “broadband truth”.

Jason is incensed by the dishonesty of just about every ISP in the country, for the callous deception perpetrated on consumers, advertising broadband of “up to 8 Mb” when in reality they might only be able to get 6.7 Mb if they have the misfortune to live 3km from their telephone exchange. How do ISPs get away with such scandalous misrepresentation?

Jason’s criticism zeroes in on the use of the term “up to” as a get-out. After all, ISPs could safely offer you “up to” 73 heptillion Mb, secure in the knowledge that they need only actually deliver your bits of data one by one on a column of ants and still be honouring their promises. Shocking! Scoundrels to a man!

With all due respect to Jason Bradbury, he is no Esther Rantzen and he is barking up the wrong tree. Or maybe just barking.

jason bradbury

My sympathies are with the ISPs on the subject of advertised speeds. I really do not believe they are deliberately seeking, either singly or in concert, to dupe the public.

ISPs are faced with a challenge when they advertise their offerings. There are different technologies with different capabilities out there in the market. An ISP offering a potentially faster technology would want to communicate that fact, but they cannot promise a definitive connection speed.  That’s because the connection speed any given technology is capable of delivering to a particular consumer depends on a host of factors, including the distance between their home and the relevant telephone exchange, and cannot be established definitively in advance.

In practice, broadband services have to date been advertised by reference to the theoretical maximum speed that a particular broadband technology is capable of. Some ISPs (eg Be Unlimited, O2, Sky) have taken advantage of Local Loop Unbundling to offer ADSL2+, a technology which can theoretically achieve 24 Mpbs although they tend to be conservative and bill it as up to 16 Mbps or 20 Mbps. Most other ISPs buy their broadband wholesale from BT and offer ADSL1 which can only achieve 8 Mbps at best.

For a consumer to actually achieve these theoretical maximum speeds they would have to live within around 2km of their telephone exchange. With greater line lengths there is greater signal attenuation and a resulting cap on the attainable connection speed. The effect of increasing distance can be quite dramatic. The excellent spreadsheet by RichardM in this post allows you to calculate the connection speed you could expect from either ADSL1 or ADSL2+ depending on the “downstream attenuation” figure reported by your router, which in turn depends on distance from the exchange.

Advertised “up to” speeds are not completely meaningless. They are helpful in distinguishing between capabilities of different services, but should not be taken as a promise about actual speed once connected.

I noticed that Pipex no longer advertise on the basis of “up to” speeds, no doubt under pressure from Jason’s misguided campaign. Visitors to their website are presented with a choice of the Mini, Midi, Maxi or Pro options. There is a “speed checker” on the home page but no information about speeds under the various services until you click on the respective “More Info” links, and then you are back to “Up to 8 Mb” type descriptions. To my mind this just makes it harder for consumers to collate the relevant facts so they can make a choice.

Jason is doing a great job of undermining trust in ISPs to no-one’s great benefit. He would do far better to put his efforts into educating consumers about the characteristics of the various technologies on offer by different ISPs, developments in the broadband market and the factors that affect connection speeds in real life.

Better still, forget all about Bradbury and his crazed obsession and go to a serious website like SamKnows. Maybe a bit more technical detail than the typical consumer might care for, but if you want to know what’s going on in broadband in the UK it’s a far better bet than the Gadget Show.

And if you were promised up to 16 Mbps but can only actually get 12.8 Mbps? Well, that’s life!

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