I beg to move,
That this House
has considered broadband speeds and advertising.
This House has considered broadband many times before and will, I am sure, do so again. It is only fair for me to begin by saying that this Government, like the previous coalition Government, have made real efforts to roll out broadband across the country. With their track record, they genuinely lead the class in Europe, and we should all welcome the additional money in today’s Budget for yet more broadband. But this debate is not about the provision of broadband itself; it is about a rather simpler fact—the price that people pay for the speed they think they are buying when they sign up to a service.
I shall draw a brief analogy. If you went to a supermarket to buy a bunch of organic grapes, Mr Owen, and you paid for those organic grapes at the checkout but found out afterwards that, in fact, you had only a tenth of the grapes that you thought you had bought and they were not actually organic, you might be rather grumpy. That is analogous to the situation with broadband advertising.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining this debate. Is it not the case that, in effect, those who advertise in that way obtain by false pretences? They use statistics selectively and in a misleading way to obtain business.
Elsewhere, I have called that practice a fraud on the consumer, and I agree with my right hon. Friend that current practices are simply not fair, reasonable or easily understandable to consumers. Presumably, hon. Members are here because they know that, according to the regulations, just 10% of people who sign up for a service have to receive the advertised speed, so 90% of people do not receive that speed.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Is this debate not also about the need to educate people about their broadband service? It is no use saying that it will be 20% or 30% faster; we need to be specific and ask for specific things to be detailed.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. In many places where broadband is delivered, people ring up BT or another provider, which says, “You will get x speed,” but when they actually get the service in their home, they find that it is a lot slower. That is one issue. There is also a general issue of areas getting broadband but not enough people signing up for it. The problem is a combination of all those things. I think that if people actually got what they thought they were going to get, they would sign up.
My hon. Friend is being most generous in allowing so many interventions. He mentioned that only 10% of people get the broadband speed they want. Will he reflect on the fact that, if that happened in any other sphere of consumer interaction—financial services, for example—there would be major investigations and fines?
I agree. That is why you would be so angry about the bunch of grapes that I imagined you buying, Mr Owen. We need new guidelines from the Advertising Standards Authority. To be fair to the Government, they are keen on such new guidelines emerging, but we should bear in mind that someone, at some point, thought that 10% of people being able to get the advertised speed was a perfectly decent guideline. We need to move on from that mentality.
I am grateful. One of my constituents, who does not receive the advertised broadband speed, consulted a telephone engineer, who said that the cable that carries the signal is incapable of carrying the advertised speed. That cable is provided by BT, which knows that it is not capable of carrying the advertised speed. Surely that is fraud.
I agree. That is the second of the two issues that I hope to be able to raise. The first is that I think we can all agree that 10% is not enough, and we should have different rules for the number of people who are able to receive a certain speed. We should also be clear about whether the technology is able to deliver what people are sold. I would like there to be a more accurate way of describing the number of people who are able to receive a service and much tighter and more accurate descriptions of the kind of technology that is used to deliver that service. That comes back to the right hon. Lady’s point.
My hon. Friend is being generous; he has given way to 100% of the official Opposition’s Back Benchers who are here and nearly 100% of the Government Back Benchers. This is not just a rural and urban issue; it affects semi-rural areas, too. Will he reflect on the fact that in individual postcodes, speeds differ vastly from those that are advertised, possibly because of different exchanges?
Absolutely. We need to end up in a position where at least half the people to whom a service is advertised—the distribution of advertising, particularly postal advertising, is often based on postcodes—should be able to receive the service that they are invited to pay for.
I thank my hon. Friend—I am trying to make it up to 100% on the Government Benches. Does he agree that this whole thing is a minefield? We have just had more money for connecting Devon and Somerset. We all thought that everything would be fine and everyone would get the right broadband speed, but a minefield of confusion has transpired. Should not we have much clearer labelling, adverts—everything, really?
Yes. As I understand it, we could have a separate debate about the broadband roll-out in Devon and Somerset, so let us park that.
We need to end up in a situation where at least half of the people who are offered a service can receive it. On the one hand, that would be a fivefold increase on what is currently offered; on the other, the half of people who, by implication, could not receive that service would still be let down. So a starting point for the ASA to consider would be not only that 50% of people can receive the advertised speed but that a certain amount either side of the average can also receive within a certain percentage of that speed. Let us say that 50% receive the advertised speed and 20% either side can receive within 10% of that. That way, customers would basically know what they were getting.
That would be a revolution compared with the shambles we have at the moment. It would restore consumers’ confidence that the service they were paying for was what they were getting. I hope it would also encourage some businesses to adopt the good practice that, to be fair, BT has adopted of trying to provide each individual customer at the point of signing up with a personalised suggestion of what their speed will be. We should not pretend that the industry has not tried to make progress, but we should certainly acknowledge that the ASA guidelines do not compel it to do so, and that is a position that we would like all to get to.
The hon. Gentleman has outlined clearly the difficulties for domestic properties. In my constituency, a large number of people who have become self-employed and work from home were misled by advertising that they would get broadband at the speed they needed—the fact of the matter is that they do not. Does he agree—perhaps the Minister will respond to this—that there is a need for people who were misled by advertising and have not had delivery of what they need to get compensation?
The hon. Gentleman pre-empts my next sentence. Business or consumer, if a person does not fall within the prescribed bounds of the new guidelines, which I hope will be much more stringent, they should be entitled to get out of the contract immediately, whatever terms they signed up to. Getting into the realms of compensation would probably open up a can of worms and not solve the issue for that consumer or business, but people should certainly be able to escape immediately and try to find another solution.
The second part of the discussion is to say that where a service is advertised as fibre, it should be entirely a fibre service. If a service is compromised by the use of copper as it enters a person’s premises, at the very least they should know that when they sign up to that service. If they do not, my fear is that we will encourage the continuation of a network that is not a full-fibre network across the country. That is what our constituents would all like to see, and it is what we and they all know is essential to planning for a new world, whether it is the internet of things or simply keeping up with our cousins abroad who are rolling broadband out even faster than we are.
And other counties—sorry. As my hon. Friend Matt Warman knows, I held a broadband summit in my constituency, and many constituents in rural areas made the point that they get so far and then the copper lets them down. Is it not critical that advertising for services is straight with the consumer and tells it like it is?
Exactly. A fibre service should be fibre from beginning to end. If it is not, providers should not be ashamed of telling the consumer that it is not. At the moment, part of the fraud being perpetuated on consumers is that not only can just one in 10 sometimes get the service they are paying, for but many of them are signing up for a service that is simply not in the ground full stop. Those are two simple issues that I hope the Advertising Standards Authority, in a process that it has already begun, will be able to resolve relatively swiftly.
There are not many things on which we come to the House asking for simple and attainable solutions that do not cost anyone any money. However, I would submit—not only to you, Mr Owen, but even to the Minister—that we could solve this problem relatively quickly if the ASA is listening, which I hope it is. My two requests are simple. They are that at least half of all consumers should be able to receive the service they are paying for, with 20% either side being able to receive within a certain range of that service, and that a service that is fibre should be fibre from beginning to end.
May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman’s ambition is too low? I cannot think of anywhere else I buy something and am guaranteed to get only 50% of what I buy—I expect 100%. It seems to me that, from the beginning of the contract, we have been satisfied with less than 100%, and the consequences are that not just rural areas but urban areas such as Slough—big business areas—are not being treated properly.
I am surprised that it has taken 15 minutes for someone to raise that point, but perhaps I should not have taken so many interventions. I agree with the right hon. Lady that the accusation could be made that I am not being ambitious enough. The fact remains that a large number of our constituents will be signing up to part-fibre services. The only practical way to have large-scale advertising of those services is to stick with an “up to” model, and 50% with a range either side is a heck of a lot more stringent than we have had thus far, but it is attainable. I would like the ASA to come back and say, “Actually, we could be tougher, and we think that is perfectly reasonable,” but I suspect the pressure is on it to stay closer to 10% than 50%. I therefore accept the principle of her point, but given that an awful lot of people will still require copper connections in the near future at the very least, we are lumbered with a situation where we have to try to make a nod towards the problems they will face.
I accept that there is a sort of third way of saying, “If you have a full-fibre connection, you can demand that it is within 90% of the advertised speed,” or something like that. It is important that we preserve the sense of such advertising, which can be clear and relatively straightforward. I think it might be too complicated to say, “If you are on a full-fibre connection you are guaranteed to get within 90%, if you on a part-fibre connection you are guaranteed to get within 50%, and if you are on a satellite connection, it will be a rather different ball game altogether.” We have to be pragmatic when we seek to influence the deliberations of the ASA, but, as I said, the Government and many Members are on the same page in seeking to get the guidelines amended. We all acknowledge that the way broadband is currently advertised to consumers is fundamentally broken. If we do not fix it, we risk compromising consumer faith in the service offered. More fundamentally, if we do not force advertisers to be open about when their services are full-fibre, as our constituents deserve, we risk not just bad advertising but the roll-out of broadband in the country being further delayed and even less perfect than it already is.
This debate is not purely about advertising. If we get the rules on advertising right, that will foster the improved roll-out of broadband across the country and greater take-up of services already available to consumers, and that enhanced take-up will result in further money going back into the system and further roll-out of the broadband service. I hope that we can all support my relatively modest—perhaps too modest—proposals, that the Government can support them and that, further, the ASA will listen to them. With that, I will hand over to all my colleagues who have intervened already.
Before calling Patricia Gibson to speak, I remind hon. Members that I will call the Scottish National party Front-Bench spokesperson at 5.10 pm. The SNP and Labour spokespeople will have five minutes and the Minister will have 10, of which he may want to give some time for a brief conclusion from the sponsor of the debate.
I thank Matt Warman for bringing the debate to the House. Another day, another debate on broadband—the subject never gets old. Even though we seem to debate broadband every day, it still pulls a big crowd. Our postbags are bulging with quite justifiable complaints about broadband; every Member here will be well versed in their constituents’ problems with broadband.
As we have heard, the issue for consumers is that when they purchase a broadband service, they deserve transparent, accurate information on their broadband speeds. I am sure that is why so many of us welcome the review into how broadband speed is advertised and why there really needs to be a change in the advertising guidance. Most broadband packages are advertised with their headline speeds—for example, 20 Mbps—but as many constituents tell us, it is unlikely that a customer will be able to receive that headline speed all of the time, and some customers will not receive it any of the time. That may be because of where that customer lives, electrical interference or the demand on the network at peak times.
There is a problem with how headline broadband speeds are advertised and presented to consumers. The broadband speed claims advertising guidance explains that headline speed claims are permitted to be advertised if they are achievable by at least 10% of the relevant customer base where the qualification “up to” is used when presenting the headline broadband speed. That is not good enough. Hon. Members have asked today what other consumer group for another product would be happy with that level of service and advertising.
In November, the Advertising Standards Authority published independent research into consumers’ understanding of broadband speed claims made in advertisements and found—not surprisingly—that speed is an important factor for a significant proportion of consumers when deciding between providers. While levels of knowledge and understanding of broadband speeds vary, overall knowledge, as hon. Members probably expect, is quite low, with many consumers not knowing what speed they require to carry out daily online tasks. As hon. Members may also expect, most consumers believe that they are likely to receive a speed at or close to the headline speed claim, when in most cases that is not likely.
What does that tell us? It tells us that, in the interests of transparency and accuracy, there simply has to be a change in the way broadband speed claims are advertised to ensure that consumers are not misled, as they clearly are currently. The Advertising Standards Authority has now called for that, and the Committee of Advertising Practice has announced it will review its guidance to advertisers and is expected to report publicly soon. Further to that, Ofcom has asked internet service providers to sign up to a voluntary code of practice for residential broadband speeds that would require internet service providers to provide consumers with clear, accurate information on broadband speeds, including the maximum speeds they can achieve, the estimated speed on their line and factors that may slow down the speed, with a route of redress when speed performance is poor.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. She mentioned speeds of 100 Mbps; in parts of my constituency, speeds of between 1 and 2 Mbps are not unusual. Will she join the call from my hon. Friend Matt Warman for accuracy in advertising about 100% fibre—not just the part-fibre, part-copper solution?
I will absolutely join him in that. The important thing we all agree on is that consumers need to be given all of the information. As somebody said, it does not matter how bad that information might be; if customers are not given all of it, how on earth are they supposed to make an informed choice about their service provider?
I will finish by pointing out that many consumers are bamboozled by the technicalities of broadband speeds, but every consumer wants and deserves the clearest, most accurate and transparent information and experience possible for internet providers to give. That is expected—indeed, it is not even debated—in other areas in the marketplace, so why should it not apply to internet service providers? Only then can consumers freely and knowingly enter into a contract with an internet service provider and understand what expectations they should have.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I thank my hon. Friend Matt Warman for bringing this important debate on broadband speeds to the House.
Broadband speeds and broadband in general are probably the biggest issue we deal with in my constituency office in North Cornwall. Broadband is increasingly becoming a necessity, and I am pleased with the Government’s announcements around new builds and some of the changes to building regulations that will help many of my constituents to get speeds of 10 Mbps by 2020. That will go down well in some of the villages in my constituency. Cornwall is one of the most superfast-connected areas in Europe, with around 95% of people having access to it, but that does not help the 5% of people who do not have access. I assure hon. Members that they write to me regularly.
A number of villages—Treven near Launceston, Stoke Climsland, Blisland, Tintagel, St Minver—currently receive an inadequate service. Either there is no service at all, or there is a copper-fibre solution that really does not work for them. There are many households that do not have access to a decent broadband speed, and the fibre-to-the-cabinet but copper-to-the-door solution is not beneficial to anyone. I am pleased that Ofcom is looking at how to check speeds on the doorstep, rather than from the cabinet. That will mean customers have much better access to the speed that they have been offered.
My office is compiling a “notspot” map for North Cornwall to plot constituents with poor broadband access and who want access to superfast—or to any connection at all that is faster than they currently have. Unfortunately, many people have been turned down for superfast because they are deemed to be in an area that is not viable. We have a local solution: Cornwall Broadband is filling in the gaps and maintaining speeds where superfast is not being provided by the current provider. Our notspot map is proving to be very useful, because we can plot whole communities and areas that do not have access to superfast—even for some of our small villages and hamlets.
Everyone now relies on broadband as they go about their day-to-day lives. Small businesses in the countryside and some of our farmers who submit returns online have to have access to that information. It is not an effective use of an architect’s time to wait for six hours to download his plans, and the productivity of some of our rural businesses is affected. Reaching a target of 99% superfast connectivity is therefore very important to rural communities.
More generally, we need access to mobile connectivity across Devon and Cornwall. I am pleased to see some of the changes to the electronics code in the Digital Economy Bill that will provide better access to sites and masts. Hon. Members present, including my hon. Friends the Members for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), will know that there are problems with accessing broadband on trains to the south-west. It is frustrating when trying to work through a journey and be productive and broadband is not available.
I am pleased with the Government’s announcement on 10 Mbps. We need greater transparency on upload and download speeds, and we need Ofcom to ensure that connections can be checked on the doorstep so that people get exactly what they have paid for and what is on the tin. I welcome what the Government have done so far and I look forward to further announcements.
I will expand on the point I made in a rather noisy intervention earlier: this is not just a rural issue. Slough is the third most productive town in the country. We have the largest trading estate in Europe in single ownership and we make more profit per resident than almost anywhere else, but our businesses on Slough trading estate cannot get the broadband speeds that they require. I have a letter here from one of them, who says
“our only option is to install a ‘lease line’. This is basically a fibre optic broadband line which is installed directly to our building for a monthly cost of circa 10x that of a standard fibre…should the issue continue to impact on our growth—” the company—
“would have no hesitation in re-locating us away” from Slough. That is the situation.
I am very glad that Matt Warman raised the advertising issue, because many people are being conned, but I want us not to add to the confusion by implying that this is only an issue in rural areas. It is horrifying that in such an important industrial centre as Slough, our businesses cannot get the speeds that they need in order to compete.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I wish to add to the cacophony of congratulations for my hon. Friend Matt Warman on securing this important debate. In many respects, my speech will mirror that of Fiona Mactaggart.
According to the latest figures we have, Solihull enjoyed an economic growth rate of 7.2% in 2015, which is akin to the growth seen in China. It is a go-ahead town. It has many of the modern industries and a trade surplus with the EU. It is a centre of the country and is leading with the combined authority. However, we are hobbled and hamstrung by poor broadband provision and misleading advertising. My constituents have had enough, to such an extent that there is a petition with many hundreds of names on it calling for better broadband provision and honest advertising.
The figure of 10% of customers achieving the advertised speeds is absolute nonsense. A point that other hon. Members have made and I will repeat is that fibre should refer only to actual fibre broadband, not to part-fibre, part-copper or aluminium solutions. I hope the Advertising Standards Authority understands that fundamental point and that that message rings loud and clear today.
Among the cases I have come across in my constituency are businesses telling me that despite the fact they have a superfast cabinet right outside their building, they are still suffering slow broadband speeds because the cabinet is routed to many miles away.
Some constituents tell me they have given up. We try to have a flexible labour market and a flexible economy. They have heard that and so have stayed at home to look after others and have what we call a portfolio career and lifestyle, yet they are finding when they turn on their computer that they cannot perform the tasks they need to in order to put bread on the table and make that commitment work. That is a great let-down.
I have heard a litany of complaints from a brand-new estate in my constituency, the Berry Maud estate, about its broadband connection. Young professionals cannot work from home because they cannot connect to the internet and therefore cannot stream videos. We ask children now to have iPads and use the internet for their vital schoolwork; they are at a disadvantage because they are so poorly served by their broadband. We need to consider that.
I know that other hon. Members want to speak, so I will finish. It is time for honesty, openness and transparency. It is time we looked at a nationwide solution. I understand the particular concerns about rural broadband, which my hon. Friend Scott Mann spoke about, but as the right hon. Member for Slough said, this is a nationwide problem. It is hampering our economy and hurting people’s lives.
I thank my hon. Friend Matt Warman for bringing this subject to the House for discussion.
The importance of having access to reliable and fast broadband should not be underestimated. It increases every day, as more and more of our lives and work rely on access to the internet. As such, empowering consumers and businesses with greater knowledge about the services being offered to them so that they can make better informed choices about which provider suits their needs best is vital.
While I accept the point made by Fiona Mactaggart about this being a national issue, it is particularly prevalent in rural areas, such as my constituency. I will take this opportunity to talk about the importance of broadband to rural areas and lend my voice to the call for greater transparency in advertising regarding broadband speeds. Access to broadband is vital to both individuals and businesses in rural areas, yet they are all too often receiving an inadequate service.
Before Christmas, I campaigned for election on a platform of increasing broadband access to 100% in Sleaford and North Hykeham from the current level of 89%. Access to broadband is not a luxury but a necessity. I have had productive conversations with the Minister for Digital and Culture and am confident that that aim will be realised, but it is not enough to have connectivity. Consumers must also have a suitably fast broadband speed and clear information about which providers can achieve that.
As my hon. Friend Scott Mann said, areas of low population density need access to broadband more, to order grocery shopping and manage bank accounts. A local barrister wrote to me to say he is not able to work from home any more because it takes so long to download his court papers that he cannot get them done in time. As local government goes digital by default, many who lack broadband will take twice as long to complete online tax forms and suchlike, with rural businesses suffering unfair economic losses as a result.
The importance of the internet cannot be overstated, and it is wrong that some people are being left behind, creating a situation of haves and have-nots. It is wrong that people who are excited to at last receive a better broadband connection find they are not getting what they think they have paid for. The key issue is the advertising of not only potential maximum speeds and fibre-optic or fibre-copper combinations but the realistic minimum speed that people are likely to achieve.
There have been important steps forward, such as the Government’s plan to build a world-class digital infrastructure as outlined in the UK digital strategy, which is welcome. The Ofcom voluntary code of practice for broadband speeds has been adopted by many of our largest internet service providers, but that code is voluntary and only two thirds of internet service providers used by small and medium-sized enterprises have signed up to it. I hope that the review currently being undertaken by the Committee of Advertising Practice will result in guidelines that create more honesty and transparency, as all hon. Members have said, for consumers and businesses. That is what our constituents need and deserve to keep pace with the digital world.
Fantastic. Thank you very much, Mr Owen; you are now my favourite Chair.
I thought I was going to have to write to the ASA about Matt Warman, who was supposed to lead this debate, but only about 10% of the content was him; the other 90% was his colleagues. I am sure he will not be lacking people buying him a beer at the bar. I congratulate him on securing the debate and on having a good evening.
This is a welcome debate, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman is destined for great things. The focus on broadband is appropriate. Today we are homing in on a particular aspect, so this debate has not been the usual venting of frustration about poor broadband speeds. He made some interesting suggestions.
It is important to recognise that in a world where the majority of our broadband is delivered through fibre to the cabinet, broadband speeds will, by definition, vary because of the delivery mechanism. It is hard to nail down a top-line speed that everyone will always receive. Granted, the Minister is leading us on a crusade towards fibre, which we endorse and encourage to happen faster. That will make things simpler, because if everyone is fibre-connected it is much easier to say that people can get a certain level of speed. The hurdle is normally in the last mile. Going forward, with fibre everywhere, the potential bottleneck is in the backhaul, but things will at least become much easier. I thought that the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness gave an excellent introduction, despite his colleagues’ “help”.
On the point that fibre means fibre, that was actually said in proceedings on the Digital Economy Bill. The Minister, who I am sure will remind us of this, was very pleased with himself, because it came shortly after “Brexit means Brexit”. When asked what fibre meant, the Minister said that “fibre means fibre”, and we all thought, “Actually, that’s pretty good.” He should tell the ASA that, because if we look on its website, we find that when challenged on this issue, it has repeatedly said that it is acceptable to call FTTC “fibre broadband”.
The problem is that we have given advertising agencies far too much scope over the years. It is a fact that life does not go better with Coca-Cola and a Mars bar does not help you work, rest and play, and if companies are not giving fibre to the house—that is not the same as giving copper to the house— they should say so. That is what the adverts should be telling us.
I completely agree. I saw a bizarre exchange on Twitter, in which a very senior individual in BT, when challenged on its claims about fibre delivery, said, “Well, we deliver fibre broadband by a different route.” The reply was, “You mean copper, in other words, so it’s not really fibre, is it?” That is something that should be flushed out. The point that the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness made, and others reinforced, was that there needs to be integrity in the offer.
I would like to touch on a couple of aspects of the problem. The issue is not just the speed, but how broadband is packaged. If people go on BT’s site or Virgin’s site, they will find an “up to” package. Part of the frustration is that those buckets are very large. Whether I get 1 Mbps, 2 Mbps or 10 Mbps, if I have signed up to an up to 17 Mbps package, that really rankles. I am paying the same as someone with 17 times the speed that I have. There is not actually an answer to that. Ofcom will tell us that the market has to deliver more choice, but in rural areas more than urban areas, the market does not function. There are challenges there.
I will make a few other quick points, but by the way, the idea of grapes was genius. That was the sort of thing we used to bring the teacher. I do not know whether that was what the hon. Gentleman was hinting at. He will be turning up with seedless grapes for you next time, Mr Owen.
Compensation, which the Digital Economy Bill empowered being put in place, is a welcome addition. At the moment, Ofcom is minded to make it possible only in a loss of service situation, and I accept that that is a reasonable starting point, but our direction of travel should be to say that broadband is far more than just a headline download speed. It is about download, upload and potentially latency, although not if we go with fibre. We should be able to expect a maximum and an average. The idea of a broadband package doing what it says on the tin should be considered, and ultimately compensation should go far further.
I repeat the congratulations to the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness on bringing this debate forward. We clearly need to improve clarity about what broadband packages involve. I am sure that the Minister is keen to ensure that fibre means fibre and that people get broadband that does what it says on the tin.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen—you have always been my favourite Chair.
As Matt Warman outlined excellently, with the Committee of Advertising Practice due to report imminently, this is a good moment for the House to influence the debate about advertising speeds—I am sure the committee will have been taking note of the debate. As all hon. Members who have spoken have outlined, businesses and people in homes up and down this country are sick and tired of being sold broadband only to realise that the advertised speed was only a headline and that, in many cases, consumers will never be likely to receive it.
The Federation of Small Businesses has said that
“dissatisfaction with broadband providers appears to be widespread and deeply felt.”
In part, that is a reflection of the fact that for more than 400,000 small businesses, the market has failed to deliver superfast broadband fit for the future. Many people in business parks in places such as Slough have been badly let down, as my right hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart mentioned. However, it is also because of the utterly absurd existing advertising standards, which allow providers to claim speeds that are achievable by only 10% of the relevant consumer base. That undoubtedly leaves people duped or, as the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness said, perpetrates a fraud on the consumer.
Research by independent testing groups has found that up to three quarters of households are paying for advertised broadband speeds that they have never received. Obviously, that is completely unacceptable. It is incomparable to the situation with similar advertising claims across industries, which reveals just how desperately weak those advertising standards are. The hon. Gentleman mentioned grapes, but if a consumer is sold a burger that is advertised as 80% to 90% meat, the producer is legally bound to ensure that that meat is of the advertised quality. There is absolutely no leeway. Thanks to the strict regulation that governs that industry, consumers can be confident in what they are buying. That is why the Opposition support the calls from hon. Members for much more stringent guidelines based on what a majority—figures of 50% and 100% have been mentioned—can receive. We need to ensure that advertised broadband speeds are upheld.
That would be a good start, but the upcoming report and recommendations are also an opportunity to insist that broadband providers be honest with their consumers—honest about the technology that connects them, as well as about the speed that they are actually receiving. I therefore hope that consideration is given to another way of measuring speed—measuring the average for each individual user. That would reflect recommendations made by the National Infrastructure Commission on mobile coverage. It raised concerns, which I share, about the need to develop a meaningful set of metrics that represent the coverage that people actually receive.
As we have heard, the FTTC roll-out means that once the connection has made its way along the copper from the cabinet to the home, speeds are highly unlikely to be at superfast level and are much more likely to be in the region of 17 Mbps. Advertising an average speed for each user is clearly far preferable. That would put power back in the hands of the consumer and small businesses and demonstrate to them the reality of the claims made by providers. That in turn might induce a certain amount of consumer activism, with consumers pushing for a much more ambitious roll-out of fibre-to-the-premises and viewing superfast broadband as the bare minimum as they come to recognise that the speeds they receive are simply not fast enough. It would potentially give consumers the tools to encourage the Government and industry to get them up to speed. It might even be the final nail in the coffin for the Government’s plan to deliver only a 10 Mbps universal service obligation. As the other House has now found, that is simply not fit for purpose.
I urge the Government once again to accept a superfast designation. The industry itself is potentially coming round to that. I want to give the Minister time to respond, so I will finish by saying that the recommendations by the Committee of Advertising Practice mark a significant moment, and I hope that the Government will take this opportunity to ensure that consumers can have the confidence they deserve.
Mr Owen, you are also my favourite Chair. Responding to the debate is a great opportunity, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend Matt Warman for securing it. It is an unusual debate, because on the broad principles that have been set out, everyone—across parties and across rural and urban areas; the Government, the Opposition and Back Benchers—is in agreement.
Hon. Members have spoken passionately today. In some cases, they gave precise details of problems with broadband roll-out. We are making progress there, but clearly there is more to do. In fact, thinkbroadband, which measures these things independently, announced today that the figure for superfast broadband availability is now up to 92.5% of UK premises. We are on track for our target of 95% by the end of this year. That is good news on the roll-out. That is superfast broadband measured at 24 Mbps, which brings us to the meat of the debate—the clarity with which these things are recorded and measured.
I take on board the points about frustration with specific parts of the roll-out, but I will concentrate on the subject of the debate, which is clarity on how these things are measured. We agree that the current rules permit adverts that are likely to mislead, as a headline advertised broadband speed needs to be achievable only by 10% of customers. It is unfortunate that those who advertise broadband currently neglect the famous maxim of David Ogilvy:
“The more informative your advertising, the more persuasive it will be.”
As in any market for broadband, customers need clear, concise and accurate information to make an informed choice. We are therefore including measures in the Digital Economy Bill to strengthen Ofcom’s powers to provide information to consumers, including data on the accuracy of broadband speed predictions. In the digital strategy that we launched last week we said:
“We are working with regulators and industry to ensure that advertising for broadband more accurately reflects the actual speeds consumers can expect to receive, rather than a headline ‘up to’
speed available only to a few, and accurately describes the technology used, using terms like ‘fibre’
only when full fibre solutions are used. There should not be a gap between what is promised by providers and what is experienced by the consumer.”
I stand by that, not least because we launched the strategy last week. I hope that Members will forgive me for the length of that direct quotation, but it is important. I also hope that I can accurately put some advertising in place myself; for those who have not read the digital strategy, it is well worth a full read.
On the mechanics of this, as many Members have said, the broadband speed claims that can be made in adverts are regulated by the independent Advertising Standards Authority. It is a good thing that the Government do not directly regulate advertising. However, I am sure the ASA will want to listen to the strength of feeling that has been expressed unanimously during this debate by Members representing hundreds of thousands of people and many businesses.
Yes—I might include a copy of the Hansard, although I know that the Advertising Standards Authority will be listening because I spoke to its chief exec yesterday to explain that this debate was going to take place. I explained that it is not only the Government’s view that we need to have more accurate advertising, but a widely held view in Parliament.
To give the ASA credit, it has made serious progress in one area. Last year it changed the rules on prices for landlines and line rental being advertised separately from the price for just the broadband element. Previously, an advert might have had the broadband cost and then said in the small print at the bottom, “You also need line rental of £19.99 a month.” Now it has changed those rules, so the costs are amalgamated. That has been a success and, in a way, shows what an effective body the ASA is when it insists on accurate advertising.
That is a really important point, because we have seen that there is real competition in the line rental part of the sector. It is a bit like the case of low-cost airlines—once the whole price is considered, competitors compete across every part of it. By making that change the ASA has driven far greater competition, and it should be encouraged by that.
Yes, it should. Its sister body, the Committee of Advertising Practice, which is responsible for writing the UK advertising codes, is now in the midst of reviewing its guidance on broadband speed claims and is on course to publish the findings of that review this spring—I am sure that it will listen carefully to this debate.
So the ASA has made progress this year and is in the middle of consulting on and reviewing the issue of “up to” speeds, but there is an area where it has not yet made any progress: the description of the technology. In my view, and having talked to many people about broadband, some people look at numbers when making a decision and some look at descriptions. It is natural that we look at different things. Describing technology as “fibre” when it is not in fact entirely fibre is misleading. If anything, that view was compounded by a briefing note given to me by BT for this debate, which says that
“customers overwhelmingly have no preference for the technology used to provide broadband.”
That may be true, but it does not mean that people want an inaccurate description of the technology. It goes on to say:
“While BT does provide the most FTTP (‘full fibre’) lines across the UK, the average FTTC line is around 93% fibre…The ASA has looked at this situation and agrees that services using almost entirely fibre-based technology can be described as ‘fibre’.”
I very much hope not for long. BT then demonstrates why that is deeply misleading, because the next sentence says:
“A higher proportion of UK premises can access fibre broadband than in any of the other four major European economies (Germany, France, Spain, and Italy)”.
That is not true. It is true only if “fibre” is defined as being part fibre and part something else, whether copper or aluminium. If fibre is defined as being fibre—I believe that fibre means fibre—in fact we are not the best of the five major European economies, but the worst. Accuracy would help BT to provide more accurate briefing notes, and its use of the term “fibre” should be updated. I am sure that the ASA will be able to take that forward in due course.
I want to touch on a couple of the other comments that were made. My hon. Friend Julian Knight and Fiona Mactaggart, in a commendably crisp speech, made points about business connections. If anything, this issue is more important for business customers, because businesses of different sizes may need services of different scales. Whereas a superfast connection is more than most households would need at the moment, if businesses have several people working on data-heavy projects they might need a highly scalable product, and for that, the technology really matters.
I am sure that everyone is delighted that in the Budget this afternoon, the Chancellor announced significant progress on having a full-fibre business voucher. I am delighted that that will now be rolled out. We proposed it first in the autumn statement and consulted on it in the last couple of months. I am delighted that it was part of the Budget; it will be an important step forward. However, we have had to describe that as “full fibre” to get away from the completely unnecessary ambiguity over the term “fibre”. I am confident that that will change soon.
The second point I want to touch on—again, this was raised by the right hon. Member for Slough—is the appropriate proportion of customers who should be able to get a particular speed. That is technically difficult, especially because speeds vary when more people get on to the network, so it is important to ensure that we get the technical specifications right. I have full confidence that the ASA, in listening to this debate and to customers around the country, and in considering the technical challenges, will come to a reasonable conclusion. I look forward to working with it to get there and to engaging with Members on both sides of the House to make sure that we have a fully functioning, competitive, well-informed and accurate broadband market, and that people no longer feel the frustration of being misled by thinking that they are buying one service when, in fact, they are delivered another.
I thank the Minister for that response and echo what he said. We are clearly all on the same side of this argument, and it would be good if the ASA took note of that. I would be surprised if the ASA was not looking at a majority rule of some sort. I am sure we would all agree not only that that is the right thing to do, but that implementing an improved standard of advertising cannot come soon enough. As we have discussed, it should ensure that more than 50% of people receive the speed that they pay for and that fibre means fibre.
I thank all Members who have taken part in this debate. Mr Owen, you are, of course, my favourite Chair as well—I look forward to serving under your chairmanship in the next broadband debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered broadband speeds and advertising.