Page last updated at 09:46 GMT, Monday, 9 March 2009

Ofcom answers your broadband questions

Fibre optic cable
The fibre rollout can begin in earnest says Ofcom

Following Ofcom's decision to back plans for BT to build a next-generation fibre optic broadband network, we asked for your questions to put to the boss of the regulator, Ed Richards.

Your principal concerns were the accuracy of claims about speed; the rate at which fibre-based broadband would spread across the UK; the potential for a new digital divide between town and country and rich and poor; and whether Ofcom was tough enough in regulating ISPs.

Q: Has Ofcom got anything planned to help consumer choice in the market since many consumers find it very difficult to select the best value plans given the wide range of tariffs? James Firth, London

Ed Richards: We should recognise that the level of competition in the UK is as good as anywhere in the world. There is plenty of evidence that competition has driven lower prices and created significant amounts of innovation.

Secondly, we have introduced a code of practice which requires companies to provide accurate information at the point of sale about the speeds that can actually be delivered to customers. That's improved transparency about speeds. Thirdly, there's a growing body of intermediaries providing information about tariffs - we accredit a couple of providers in this area.

Q: I am currently supposed to be getting up to 8Mb with a very well known supplier, but last time I checked speeds I was download speeds of 368Kbps. I want to ask why are the promises by these companies so vague and easy to "get out of" from their end, and why is there no better alternative without paying an arm and a leg? Andrew Hagan, Lisburn.

Ed Richards: We introduced the code of practice just before Christmas because we had a lot of concern from people on this very topic and decided intervention was necessary. We agreed a voluntary code of practice which covers 95% of users, giving them clear and accurate information on what speeds can actually be delivered. Both new and existing users have the right to ask their providers about that - and they should expect an accurate answer.

Q: Why are companies selling broadband allowed to advertise theoretical maximum speeds that can only be reached in optimum conditions? Andy Ridge, Chester.

Ed Richards: There has been concern about the accuracy of this advertising. That's not a matter for us but for the Advertising Standards Authority. The ASA needs to make a judgement about whether it is misleading; let them speak for themselves.

But as far as we're concerned it's crucial that companies do give accurate information about what can be delivered and that's why the code is such a breakthrough.

Graphic of a house

Q: Has the UK been too slow in rolling out a fibre network? John Sheridan, Northampton.

Ed Richards: The UK does have a fibre network - many organisations already have fibre connections. The key question is the deployment of fibre to small businesses and homes. We published our major document on the regulatory environment for super-fast broadband last week - and we now expect that to take place through both Virgin and BT.

We now expect fibre-optic to cover millions of users over the next two or three years. We've moved forward reasonably swiftly. Would we like these things to happen faster? Of course we would - but we have to make regulatory decisions for the long-term and companies have to make decisions about how and where to invest. But companies are already investing in super-fast broadband and that's good news for consumers.

Q: Why not for once start the national upgrade with the countryside, not urban areas? Jez Lawrence

Good question - but there are rural areas already where there is a challenge not only for super-fast but for current generation broadband. We have very extensive coverage compared to many other countries but we'd like to take it further.

The current discussion with the government about a possible broadband Universal Service Obligation is very interesting and we're very supportive of that.

In relation to super-fast broadband you're talking about billions of pounds worth of investment potential.

It's important we get cracking and that companies make an investment where they can get a return. Clearly there is going to be a challenge about how pervasive that network is and whether it is available to people in rural areas - as well as towns - and that's something we're already looking at.

Q: What benefit has privatisation brought to the telecoms industry and how does Ofcom intend to persuade firms to bring fibre to areas where it's not profitable to do so? Jez Lawrence

Privatisation, liberalisation and competition have been a big step forward. All you have to do is compare the days of a state monopoly when you used to have to wait for days on end just to get a service.

When they turned up in those days you were told you had to have a black telephone and if the service went wrong you only had one person to call. In relation to provision of a pervasive service for everyone, we won't and can't persuade people to do that - we need the right policy tools to achieve those kind of objectives. That's what we're discussing with the government when it comes to protecting consumers.

Q: Large companies are starting to use more unscrupulous methods with consumers - like BT's rolling contract auto renewing every 12 months. What is Ofcom going to do to protect consumers? People should be opting into contracts - not trying to opt out. KittyISP

Ed Richards: We've done a huge amount to protect and promote the consumer interest. We have codes on mis-selling and what's called slamming. The specific issue of rollover contracts is quite a new one and it's causing some concern and we're looking at it and expecting to reach a conclusion on that quite shortly.

Q: Why was 2Mbps chosen as the target speed for 2012 for the minimum broadband speed? Chris Hunt

Ed Richards: That hasn't been chosen - but that's the working hypothesis. The reason is that is the kind of speed you need to get decent video. We're debating that with Lord Carter and his team - it's an open question.

Q: Why are we only talking about download speeds - what about upload speeds? Mike King, London

Ed Richards: Good question. We're concentrating on download for the moment because that is people's primary concern. But we recognise that upload speeds are relevant and we'd like to see an increase in upload speeds across the network.

Q: Why are ISPs allowed to charge so much for capped access? Richard Rowley

Ed Richards: We have probably the most competitive market in the world. In a competitive market you have to accept that companies offer different products and services at different prices. Consumers have to shop around - and make a decision on what most suits their own needs.

Q: Is there a need to improve Ofcom's consumer focus? James

Ed Richards: We have a very extensive consumer protection and have enforced on a whole range of fronts. Right now the benefits of those interventions are coming through, because the volume of complaints about telecoms companies has been falling. The action we're taking has been having an effect. We're open to suggestions from members of the public about what they'd like us to look at.

Q: Recently I've seen Ofcom do very little to help telecom consumers - is this a conscious decision to act as a "light touch" regulator? Tidylenny

Ed Richards: I don't like the expression "light touch" regulator. We try to be as unintrusive as we can be, not to intervene unless we have to, but if we have to and there's a public interest in intervening, we are willing to do so swiftly and effectively.

Q: I would like to know Ofcom's views on why the "newer" speeds are only available to those who can afford the astronomically high prices of the contracts with ISPs and why they are not doing anything to narrow the "digital divide" that exists between the well-off and the low paid? Ravenmorpheus

Ed Richards: There are always going to be price differentials. What we have seen is a very substantial reduction in the price of broadband. Of course there will always be affordability issues for those on low incomes. Intervening to provide free services or subsidised services is a problem for the government. That's a political decision.

Graphic of broadband speeds/applications
Graphic showing speeds for applications

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