Consumers are still confused about how fast broadband services really are
A complaint lodged by BT about the speeds of Virgin Media's broadband service has been upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority.
The challenge centred on its advertisement Hate to Wait?, which ran in the national media and featured download times for songs and TV shows.
BT argued that Virgin's usage caps meant that downloads during peak times would be slower than advertised.
The ASA has agreed and ordered Virgin to make it clear that speeds will vary.
In its adjudication it said that the advert did not make it clear that customers on Virgin Media's lower speed packages would be able to download TV shows at the speeds advertised only during off-peak hours.
It ruled that Virgin Media needed to clarify that download times would be restricted during peak hours.
Virgin Media argued that, for users of its M 2Mbps (megabits per second) package, a TV show downloaded during peak hours would take only a few minutes longer to download.
But it did admit that users would be subject to its so-called traffic management system, which caps data usage during peak hours.
It said that the issue would affect only users of the 2Mbps service.
Customers on its L 4Mbps package could download 60 songs and/or two TV shows before reaching caps while those on the XL 20Mbps package could download 614 songs or nine TV shows before their speeds would be subject to caps, Virgin said.
"We believe our Hate to Wait? campaign provided a simple and transparent comparison between broadband speeds for consumers looking to choose between Virgin Media's M, L and XL broadband packages," Virgin Media said in a statement.
On a secondary issue, Virgin admitted that it wrongly used the term "megabits" when referring to the size of the files being downloaded and agreed to change it to the correct "megabytes" term.
It also agreed to amend the ad to reflect the fact that it would take some customers longer to download a TV show than stated.
The issue of so-called traffic throttling, where internet service providers place limits on the amount of data users can download, has become more pertinent with the growth of video-sharing sites and TV catch-up services such as the iPlayer.
In the US some providers are banning access to file-sharing via programs such as BitTorrent and in the UK the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) is in talks with providers, including Virgin Media, about banning heavy users of file-sharing sites.
"ISPs are responding to the growth of online video services and capping is also a way of migrating customers onto faster and more expensive tariffs," said James Garlick, analyst with Screen Digest.
Virgin Media believes traffic-throttling is vital to ensure a good service.
"Our traffic management policy helps ensure the majority of customers receive the quality of service they expect from our fibre-optic broadband product by managing demand from the heaviest users at certain times of the day," said a spokesman for Virgin Media.
The broadband arena in the UK has become hugely competitive and the ASA has received a steady stream of complaints, sometimes from consumers but often from rival providers, about the speeds of both fixed and mobile broadband.
"There are lots of factors which affect speed. Consumers are concerned about it but often it is competitors keeping an eye on each other," said a spokesman from the ASA.