Consumer Rights and Regulations Affecting Broadband

Everything you need to know about broadband and your rights as a consumer.

There are a number of rules, regulations, guidelines and codes of practice in place to ensure that you’re not misled when choosing which broadband service to sign up for, or mistreated once you’re tied into a long contract. We’ve compiled a list of some of the ways these can help ensure you get the best deal from your broadband.

Please note: This guide should not be taken as legal advice, if you’re in any doubt about your rights as a broadband consumer then consult a solicitor or qualified legal advice service.

Speeds

Broadband speeds can be confusing because the speed you'll achieve varies from what's advertised. How much it varies depends on the type of broadband, where you live and how many other people are using the service at the same time.

Factors affecting speed

Broadband services provided over telephone lines have a ‘speed limit’ determined by the cable length between your home and the telephone exchange or, for fibre services, your home and the telephone street cabinet. You always get the fastest connection speed your line can support, but that may be a lot lower than the headline speeds the service was advertised with.

All types of broadband service will usually also slow down further at the busiest peak times, which is generally during the evening, when the most people are using the service at the same time. How much your service slows down at peak time depends on factors like whether your provider has made a big investment in capacity or has instead decided to prioritise having the lowest prices.

Average speeds

The communications regulator Ofcom monitor the speed of UK fixed line broadband connections by installing speed testing equipment in a representative sample of UK homes. Using this they're able to report on the national average broadband speed and on the speeds different types of broadband and different providers achieve. These figures are reported every Spring.

Broadband.co.uk also publishes monthly figures giving the national average broadband speeds based on the tens of thousands of tests our broadband speed checker runs each month. Broadband providers are matched automatically by IP address rather than self-selection by testers.

As Ofcom's testing monitors the speeds achieved during 24 hours of real world Internet use, while Broadband.co.uk's testing is a dedicated test measuring the maximum speed possible with no other line use, Ofcom's average speed figures have tended to be a little lower.

Advertised headline speeds

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) enforce guidelines on how broadband providers can advertise the speeds of broadband services.

Advertised headline speeds, or ‘up to’ speeds, must be consistently achievable by at least 10% of the service's customers. This means that standard phoneline broadband services that can theoretically achieve speeds of up to 24Mb are instead advertised with a more realistic ‘up to 16Mb’ figure, or even lower for budget providers with more network congestion.

Estimated speeds

Ofcom have a voluntary broadband Code Of Practice that most major suppliers have signed up for.

This requires providers to give you an accurate estimate, given as a range of speeds, for the speed you'll achieve from your broadband service before you commit to sign up. If this is different from the advertised headline speed, they should explain the technical factors causing this.

In addition to provider estimates while signing up, you can also gain an overview of speed estimates for a variety of broadband services in your area by using comparison services like Broadband.co.uk's checker. Ofcom provides accreditation to ensure that comparison sites are impartial, accurate and up to date. Broadband.co.uk has been Ofcom approved since 2010.

If your speed is slower than expected

Should you find that you're getting a much slower speed than your provider estimated at time of sign up, the Ofcom voluntary Code Of Practice requires the provider to work with you and give advice to increase your speed.

If your speed cannot be improved, then an Ofcom voluntary Code Of Practice provider should give you the offer of paying a lower monthly bill, equivalent to the cost of a slower product, should one be available, or give you the option of leaving your contract early and without penalties. In June 2015, Ofcom strengthened the voluntary Code Of Practice so that customers can now leave contracts performing significantly under their initial estimate at any point during their contract, not just in the first 3 months.

Ofcom last published a list of voluntary Code Of Practice signatories in 2010. However, a number of new providers have begun trading since this date, and the Code itself has been revised, so this may not represent the current situation.

The Code's technical requirement to be able to leave your contract due to 'significantly under performing' speeds is that the speed is slower than that received by 90% of the provider's customers running similar lines with the same type of broadband (10th percentile speed). For comparison, the range you'll be given at sign up should be the speeds achieved by 20% or more and by 80% or more of those customers (although if the range is only 2Mbps or less difference, they may give the mean of the 2 figures as a single-point estimate instead).

The Consumer Rights Act 2015 backs this up with additional legal rights. Under the Act the service must fully conform to the contract, with the possibility of a price reduction or even cancelling the contract if it does not happen.

If your speed is poor, but isn't slow enough to allow you to leave your contract and your provider's technical support and customer service team can't resolve the issue, then our tips to help speed up your broadband may be useful, as may our guide on how to complain to your provider.

More guidance on broadband speed

We have a longer and more technical guide about broadband speeds and the factors that can be involved in deciding the speeds you achieve.

Ofcom also published a guide to broadband speeds.

Traffic management

Traffic management is any kind of selective and artificial limitations on how broadband connections operate.

Traffic management can involve blocking, limiting or prioritising certain types of traffic or certain users. These controls can be applied permanently or selectively based on usage volume, time of day or both. As overall capacity is limited, prioritising one type of traffic or type of user can be seen as a kind of selective limit on the speeds and capacities of other types.

Traffic management can be considered a positive and necessary control that improves the performance and reliability of a broadband connection. For example, many business broadband services make use of traffic management to ensure that there's always a guaranteed stable broadband connection for all users and types of traffic, so no business critical activities are delayed.

It can also be seen as a hidden limitation on the broadband service you expect to be provided as advertised.

Examples of traffic management

Many broadband providers use these sort of controls to ensure that their service performs well for the majority of users and uses, so that a small number of users can't degrade the service for the rest. This may involve applying speed limits to the heaviest users at peak times to prevent them from slowing down the connections of other users, or applying prioritisation to certain types of time critical Internet usage, like video streaming and gaming, to prevent buffering or lag.

Traffic management can often be a hidden limitation on how good a cheap broadband package is. For example, a budget package might be managed to limit the quality of video streams. Your connection might be fast enough for high definition video but artificially limited to only stream standard definition, or you may be prevented from streaming more than one video at a time. Cheaper packages often have more traffic management limits than more expensive packages in order to ensure that customers who pay more get a better service.

Alternatively, a package that has a very high connection speed might have traffic management controls applied to limit how much you can download at the busiest times, so that if you're downloading and streaming a lot in the evening you might find that your speed is temporarily limited. This hidden speed limit might be even easier to hit if you're uploading big files to sites like YouTube as there tend to be fewer heavy uploaders.

If you live outside of your provider's low cost network area then you may find your traffic management policy is far more restrictive than those applied in areas where your provider has been able to install their own equipment in the telephone exchange. This type of traffic management tends to apply to all such users, not just those who are using the network the most.

Another common type of traffic management is to limit only certain types of broadband usage, such as peer-to-peer file sharing and accessing files shared on usenet.

Outright blocks of certain types of traffic are rare, but more common for mobile broadband products that might, for example, prevent video streaming on cheaper packages.

Published traffic management policies

Thanks to self-regulation through the Broadband Stakeholder Group's (BSG) Traffic Management Transparency Code, which has been overseen and reviewed by the regulator Ofcom, broadband providers should publish their traffic management policies in a standard format.

The BSG Traffic Management Transparency Code defines a standardised format of a table of questions and answers known as a ‘Key Facts Indicator’ or KFI. This is designed to make it easy to see exactly how traffic management affects a broadband product and to allow like-for-like comparisons of broadband products across different providers.

Traffic management policies won't usually be prominently linked from product pages but should be easily found through a site search or by using a search engine. All Ofcom accredited price comparison sites, such as Broadband.co.uk, will link to providers’ traffic management policies through ‘more details’ summaries and on provider pages, unless the product is ‘truly unlimited’ and free from all traffic management.

The standardised table may be provided on a webpage or as a downloadable PDF file. Some providers may choose to summarise their policies with text or images and hide the standard table behind a ‘fold’, so look out for a link giving more information.

More guidance on traffic management

The communications regulator Ofcom have also published a consumer guide on traffic management that you may find helpful.

Usage allowances

Usage refers to the amount of content that goes through your broadband connection each month.

‘Usage allowance’ is sometimes also referred to as ‘download allowance’, but this isn't actually limited to transfers when you save a file at the end, everything you do on the Internet counts. It also includes uploading where you send content to servers, sites and services on the Internet, and streaming where you view videos or listen to audio without keeping the file.

All of the following examples would count towards your monthly usage:

  • Web pages you view on desktop, and on tablet and mobile devices using your WiFi
  • Videos you watch online, such as on sites like YouTube, iPlayer, Netflix or Facebook
  • Audio you listen to on services like Spotify, iPlayer Radio, Pandora or iTunes Radio
  • Any data used by apps that connect to the Internet, including installing new apps
  • Skype calls, Facetime, Google+ Hangouts and other audio and video conferencing and online calls
  • Online mutli-player games, or console game updates and demos you download
  • Any content you send to servers, sites and services on the Internet, such as status updates you've written or photos you've shared
  • Cloud backup of files, including syncing of photos across multiple devices
  • Streamed content on Internet connected smart TVs or set top boxes, unless your provider includes this in your allowance (as Virgin Media TiVo, BT TV and TalkTalk TV do for their own TV services)

Choosing your usage allowance

If you do more than simple web browsing and emailing with your broadband connection, then it's likely that you'll need a generous usage allowance. If you watch high definition television or films over your broadband connection then it's very likely that you'll hit restrictive usage limits. Another increasingly common source of heavy usage is cloud backup and syncing services that automatically copy all the files, photos, apps, media etc on your computer and mobile devices to and from the Internet.

Even if you don't personally use your broadband connection intensively, if you live in a busy household with several different people using the Internet over a variety of different devices then it's likely that your household's usage will add up to a large monthly figure.

However there's no need to pay for an expensive package to get higher usage if you won't need it, so many providers will offer you a tool to estimate how much monthly data you'll need before you sign up. Thanks to the voluntary code of practice, providers should warn you when you're close to exceeding your usage allowance each month, and if you've been warned more than once, they should offer to sell you an upgrade to a package with more usage rather than send you a large bill or cut you off. However some providers have a standard rate for out of bundle usage, so be sure to check how this works.

Another alternative is to sign up for a provider with good value unlimited broadband packages. Some providers have opted to sell all their broadband packages as unlimited with different price points relating to bundled features like phone calling and TV packages, or corresponding to different speeds or types of broadband connection.

Unlimited usage

You’d think that ‘unlimited broadband’ would mean broadband without any limits, but in practice this marketing term can be a little more complicated.

It used to be that some products advertised as ‘unlimited’ would have a difficult to find ‘fair usage policy’ that was effectively a hidden usage allowance. In some cases this would be considerably lower than the upfront limits on some other providers’ products. However the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) have clamped down on these sort of misleading secret limits and this practice is no longer permitted.

The ASA's current guidelines for advertising broadband only allow the term ‘unlimited’ to be used if there are actually no limits on the amount of data you can use. However unlimited broadband can still have traffic management applied, as long as this is explained somewhere on the product page. It's also still permitted to use terms like ‘unlimited web’ or ‘unlimited browsing’, which may mean that other broadband uses like data used by apps, video streaming or Skype calls are not unlimited.

‘Truly unlimited’

In simplest terms ‘unlimited’ means that a broadband package's usage allowance has no pre-set limit and you can download and upload as much as you like each month. However, you may have noticed that some providers advertise their broadband as ‘truly unlimited’ or ‘totally unlimited’ while others simply say ‘unlimited’.

In order to be allowed to advertise a product as ‘truly unlimited’ or similar, ASA guidelines require that it have no traffic management controls causing any limitations on the rate that data can be downloaded or uploaded, regardless of the time of day or how heavily the service is being used.

More guidance on usage allowances

We have a longer article about Truly Unlimited Broadband if you’d like to learn more about this.

The ‘Downloads’ section of Ofcom's guide to managing your broadband costs may also be useful.

Broadband contracts

Broadband contracts represent the minimum number of months you commit to paying for a broadband service.

Contract lengths

Thanks to changes to European Union telecoms law that came into force in May 2011, the maximum permitted initial contract length for phone or broadband products is 24 months and when contracts are longer than 12 months, an alternative choice with a contract of 12 months or less must also be offered. Ofcom include this requirement in their ‘General Conditions’ for broadband providers.

Some providers only offer short contracts on selected products, usually those with standalone broadband rather than as part of money saving bundles. Other providers allow you to select the option of a shorter contract on all products when signing up, but if you opt to do this then you may not qualify for the same special offers or may be charged more for installation or equipment.

Installation, equipment and maintenance

Your rights extend to all aspects of your broadband service, including installation, hardware (such as a wireless router) and ongoing maintenance. All of these aspects are covered by the Consumer Rights Act 2015 and the Consumer Contracts Regulations 2014.

Any charges for installing and activating the broadband service in your home must be made clear before you sign up. In addition, you should not be charged for optional extras (such as security software) unless you explicitly opt-in for them. The boxes for any extras should be unticked on the sign up form.

Your broadband provider is responsible for any hardware, such as a router, that is supplied as part of the contract. If you supply your own hardware bought elsewhere, you should contact the retailer for support. Hardware should be fit for purpose, and of satisfactory quality. It will normally be covered by a manufacturer’s guarantee, but your additional rights under the Act mean you should get a replacement if a fault occurs within 30 days, or a repair or replacement within at least six months.

Ongoing maintenance, such as relating to speed or downtime, should be provided to ensure the terms of your contract are met. If they don’t, then support should be offered within “a reasonable time and without charge”. If any problems are still not fixed, you may be able to claim a price reduction, or to cancel the contract.

When your contract period ends

After you minimum contract period has run out, you won't need to apply for a new contract, your current contract will usually convert into a ‘rolling contract’ where you continue to pay the same price but may give 30 days notice at any time to end the contract.

However it's a good idea to check your provider's website to ensure that there aren't cheaper or faster options that have been introduced since your contract ended. Most providers won't automatically switch you to better tariffs or features, you may have to instead phone up and ask. Switching to better offers could involve committing to a whole new contract, if this is the case then always shop around and ensure that another provider available in your area wouldn't be able to offer you something better. It may also be the case that if you phone up saying you want to leave your contract, you might be offered an even better deal without a new contract tie-in.

Ending your contract early

If you try to end your contract early before the minimum contract period has finished, you will be liable to pay charges to leave your contract. This should not be more than the cost of the remaining months of service that you would have paid for if the contract had continued and in many cases it may be a lot less.

There are, however, some circumstances where you should be allowed to leave your contract early without consequences.

Fourteen day cooling off period

If you've only just signed up over the phone or on the Internet and you're now having second thoughts, regulations may allow you to cancel within the first 14 days of your contract without any penalties.

Since June 2014, the Consumer Contracts Regulations have applied to contracts sold at a distance, including broadband services. These extend the distance selling ‘cooling off period’ to 14 days. This period starts either when you receive written confirmation of your contract, or when the broadband service starts to be supplied. You must cancel in writing but fax and email count. It should be noted that when hardware is involved (eg, a supplied router or adapter) you may not be able to qualify for a Distance Selling refund if the packaging has been opened, especially if any security seals have been broken - it needs to be in pristine and resalable condition.

Small print and mis-selling

The Consumer Rights Act 2015 gives you additional protections for contracts signed after 1st October 2015. These cover two main areas:

Mid-term contract changes

The communications regulator Ofcom's ‘General Conditions’ for providers require that if changes are to be made to your existing contract that may be of ‘material detriment’ to you, your provider must give you at least a month's notice of this and allow you to exit your contract without penalty.

The wording isn't clear what might constitute material detriment, but it's reasonable to assume that significant reductions in usage allowance, harsh new traffic management policies or other limits on use of your service might qualify.

For contracts starting after 23rd of January 2014, Ofcom has amended their guidance on how the rules should be interpreted. They now say that any changes to contract terms must be communicated clearly to customers, and make it clear that mid-term price rises always count as ‘material detriment’ and should always allow a customer to leave their contract early. They also clarify that keeping the price of your service the same while significantly reducing the features provided could also be treated as a price increase.

So, if the price you agreed when signing up for your broadband is raised (not including previously explained promotional introductory prices ending) before your contract period is over, you should be informed of this and allowed to leave your contract early, without incurring charges.

However since this announcement, some providers have updated their contract terms and conditions to explicitly allow for limited price rises during the minimum contract term. For example, Sky Digital's contract terms allow a price rise of up to 10% within the contract.

‘Not fit for purpose’

If you feel that your broadband has been missold to you and does not provide the features you were promised before signing up, or if your broadband has since developed a serious fault that prevents you from enjoying the service, you may also be able to get out of your contract.

Contracts entered into from 1st October 2015 are covered by the Consumer Rights Act 2015. This states that goods (such as hardware) must be of satisfactory quality and be fit for purpose. A service must conform to the contract, including additional written or verbal promises. This could include speed, reliability or installation. If these terms are not met, your rights include a price reduction or even ending the contract.

Older contracts are still governed by the Sale of Goods Act, 1979 and The Supply of Goods and Services Act, 1982. Under these suppliers of both goods and services (so in this case, broadband hardware and ongoing broadband connections) must ensure what they sell is fit for purpose, delivered as described, of satisfactory quality and provided to ‘proper standards of workmanship’.

To leave your contract under these terms, you’d need to make a complaint to your provider, so read on to the section below on complaints and dispute resolution.

More guidance on broadband contracts

You may find Ofcom's checklist for when taking out a new phone or broadband contract to be helpful.

Switching broadband providers

When switching between broadband services provided over the same telephone line, the standardised Ofcom GPL switching system allows your new provider to switch your line over automatically without losing service. When the broadband services you're switching between use entirely separate lines from each other, such as Virgin Media cable or ultrafast full fibre to the home, the process can be more complicated.

The GPL (Gaining Provider Led) system came into force in late June 2015 and applies to the vast majority of switches (those between lines on the Openreach network using BT telephone exchanges and street cabinets). Once your switch is initiated, you have a 14 day cooling off period in which to cancel without penalty. The provider that you're leaving will automatically send you a Notice Of Transfer letter informing you that another provider has begun the transfer process and detailing any final charges due, such as the cost of calls and broadband usage since your last bill. It may be the case that particular services in your bundle, like television, cannot be automatically switched or are only available when you keep your broadband with your current provider. In this case everything should be explained in the Notice Of Transfer letter.

If you're switching between products that will require entirely separate fixed lines into your home in order to deliver the service then the GPL system won't apply. You may also be unable to use GPL in cases where you're using a non-standard setup such as particular types of alarm systems. When GPL doesn't apply, you will likely be required to coordinate with both providers to end one service and start the other. This is known as Cease And Re-provide. If this is the case then your new provider should let you know when you begin the sign up process.

If you're leaving the Openreach network then a small 'cease charge' will usually be due, this is to pay for work to disconnect your line from the cabinet and/or exchange. If you're switching to a service on the Openreach network then an installation charge will be due, even if you still have an Openreach (BT) master socket installed. Connection or reconnection used to be a very costly process where you were forced to commit to getting your line rental from BT, however the regulations have now been changed to allow more competition in this area and today most providers can offer their own ‘New Line Provide’ (NLP) sign ups for as low cost as £20 or £50, or even for free as part of promotional offers.

If you're switching both broadband and phone services at the same time, you will usually be able to bring your phone number with you. Transferring of phone number should be automatic on the Openreach network thanks to the GPL system. Even when following a Cease And Re-provide process for broadband, you may find that indicating that you wish to switch your phone number at the same time as your broadband triggers a GPL transfer for the phoneline which, for an Openreach line, can automatically cancel the broadband and call plan products associated with that line rental. Be aware though - if you're switching from Virgin Media or a full-fibre provider like Hyperoptic, the phone line is completely separate from your broadband so transferring your phone number would likely have no affect on the broadband component (or may make the monthly cost more expensive due to broadband and phone bundles having subsidised prices).

More guidance on switching providers

We have a longer article about Switching Broadband Suppliers if you’d like to learn more about this.

Ofcom have published guidance on changing suppliers.

Complaints and dispute resolution

If you have a problem with your broadband you should always contact your provider's customer or technical support and follow their procedure to help to resolve the issue.

If you've still been unable to fix the problem, even after escalating the problem to senior management, you may then need to make a complaint.

From the start, you should keep good records of all your communications with your provider. Try to remain reasonable, friendly and open to compromise - providers may be more open to helping you if you're not putting them on the defensive. You should also consider making a written complaint early on as this can affect when you're allowed to escalate the problem further.

Taking your complaint further

Ofcom require that all broadband providers sign up to an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) scheme. There are two different schemes, CISAS (Communications and Internet Services Adjudication Scheme) and Ombudsman Services: Communications. Your supplier should belong to one or other scheme. Ofcom provide a list to allow you to easily find which ADR scheme covers your provider.

If your provider admits that they are not able to do anything more to resolve your problem, you should then be able to request that they issue you with a document call a ‘deadlock letter’. With this letter you can begin the ADR process of contacting the Adjudicator or Ombudsman. If they refuse to provide a deadlock letter then you have to wait until 8 weeks have passed since your first written complaint before ADR can begin.

The Adjudicator or Ombudsman will review your situation and determine whether your provider is at fault, including whether they followed the codes of practice, guidelines and regulations outlined earlier in this document. If they find that you should have been allowed out of your contract earlier, they may require that your provider pays you compensation.

Please note that if they conclude that your provider followed all the rules correctly and gave you all the required information at the time of sign up, the ADR scheme may not find in your favour - misunderstanding on your part is not mis-selling by the provider if they provided you all the necessary information in the required format and the service is running as expected.

Other places to complain

While Ofcom aren't able to handle individual complaints, you can still report unfair practices and contract terms to them as issues facing all broadband customers of a particular provider. Complaints data helps Ofcom to target enforcement action against companies that may not be compliant with their rules. Ofcom also keeps track of the levels of complaint that major broadband, phone and TV providers receive and publishes reports to aid consumers when choosing a supplier. You can find details of how to contact Ofcom on their website.

If you feel that your broadband provider has been intentionally misleading in their claims about broadband and missold you your broadband service, you could also complain to the Advertising Standards Authority or Trading Standards. These may result in the provider being prevented from using the same advertisement or website wording again, or being issued a court injunction for breaking consumer law, but are unlikely to result in direct or immediate help or compensation for you. As such we’d recommend sticking to the provider's own procedures and going through the ADR process as the primary approach. It's especially important to remember that consumer broadband is provided as a ‘best efforts’ service, so consumer law will not help if your issue is with the speed of your service, while the ADR process may be more helpful due to Ofcom's code of practice about speeds (see above).

If the ADR process has failed to resolve your problems, you might be able to get useful advice from the Citizen's Advice Bureau.

You may also be able to take your broadband provider to the Small Claims Court if you feel that they've broken consumer law, however we would strongly caution against doing this without legal advice from a qualified service or solicitor and would recommend considering this a last resort option. It is also not unheard of for smaller broadband providers to threaten legal action against their customers, particularly in cases where they feel that the ADR process has been abused.

If you wish to warn other potential customers of difficulties you've experienced with your provider you can leave ratings and a review at Broadband.co.uk that will be displayed to other users of this site.

More guidance on broadband complaints

We have a longer article about complaining to your broadband provider that may be of use. If you're having problems that could be due to your home setup, we also provide a list of tips you can try to speed up your broadband to rule this factor out.

Ofcom's latest figures on customer service satisfaction levels were released in January 2016 and their latest figures on broadband, telecoms and pay TV complaints came out in September 2015. You may also find Ofcom's advice on telecoms complaints and customer service useful.