When can I complain about broadband speed?

March 3rd, 2022
When can I complain about broadband speed?

In general, as a nation, we are too reluctant to complain. We would rather believe that someone will fix everything – one day. While that may be comforting, it is not true: when no one complains things get worse. That said, you won’t get very far if you complain about internet under-performance without doing your homework. To justify a complaint, you need to know the speed(s) you are getting and the speed you are contracted for.

Firstly, understand that there are two main reasons why internet connections slow down. If the connection problem is recent and you previously received good quality service, the chances are there is a connection fault. On the other hand, if the connection problem exists from the start of a new contract or has gradually worsened over time, there could be more complex issues at play. Let’s look at each situation.

Sudden or recent connection problems

Most malfunctions that affect your connection quality are entirely accidental. Of these, most are configuration errors on your provider’s servers that their engineers can resolve quickly – but only, of course, if you alert them to the problem. Internet traffic management is complex and your ISP does not automatically know, usually, when you have a connection issue, so never be shy to tell them. Because many common faults have automated solutions, the mere act of calling sometimes resolves the issue.

Occasionally, the cause of a sudden or recent decline in connection speed is due to a fault at your end. Avoid altering settings on your own computer unless instructed by an ISP engineer! Damage to cables, splitters, boosters, noise filters, sockets or the broadband router is possible but unlikely. If you are using Wi-Fi, ask yourself if the router has recently been moved.

The third possibility is rare, but all consumers should be aware of it. Some ISPs pressurise their customer service department to induce callers to sign new contracts. Mysterious “faults” encourage us to call and it is surprising how many problems are then resolved by renewing a contract. If you suspect this, immediately contact OFCOM even if you gave consent during your customer service call: contracts extracted under duress are not legally binding. Needless to say, if you have any suspicions about an ISP’s customer service, compare the broadband deals available and choose a new ISP.

Long term or intermittent speed issues

A more general problem in the industry is delivering the connection speeds advertised in the advertised package deals. While the issues described in the paragraphs above affect some people occasionally, underperforming packages affect most of us, often.

Most customers don’t understand what a “50Mbps” contract should do, but even a 10Mbps connection should allow uninterrupted video streaming. If you experience problems, the first thing to do is to confirm whether the cause is your ISP or the server you are trying to connect to.

You can check that by trying a variety of different websites but a better way is to use a Broadband Speed Checker. You can find several through a search engine such as Google. We suggest you run these tests at different times of day and always record the results – because if you later complain to your ISP or OFCOM, these figures matter.

Okay, you’ve now discovered that your average broadband speed is less than the speed you thought you were paying for, but are you right? 99.99% of us do not screenshot the online form when we sign up, but the ISP did, and will happily remind us. In most cases the small print states…

  • You will receive UP TO 10-20-40-60-100 Mbps download speed, and…
  • they reserve the right to throttle your speed if you download too much in any given month and / or there is high load on their network

Why speed cannot be guaranteed

Data connections are rather like roads. If you are one mile from your ISP and your car (data) travels at 60mph, it should be there in one minute. But what if other traffic uses the same road? Now your data is almost sure to encounter bottlenecks, like junctions and traffic lights, and your average speed will be less. This is why no ISP can absolutely guarantee that the maximum speed is the actual speed on any given occasion. If that were the whole story, your ISP would always be in the right if they deliver less than the advertised speed, wouldn’t they?

Not so. In reality, the number of cars on that road is the number of customers the ISP has signed up to use it. If they sign up more customers than capacity, they create holdups. If they always have spare capacity, no one is ever held up and everyone gets the maximum speed. Data travels a lot faster than cars so your distance from the ISP is inconsequential if they don’t overload their network.

In the real world, however, the more customers they sign, the lower the tariffs they can offer: it is a trade-off. OFCOM understands this, but it does not negate your rights under the Trade Descriptions Act and contract law: if the vendor has not properly revealed the terms and conditions the contract is void (and you may be due compensation). Even if they have (somewhere) the shortfall in performance must be reasonable in view of the technical limitations.

Unreasonable under-performance

Chronic under-performance should always be reported to OFCOM if your ISP will not rectify it. Sometimes it is because they overload their network. Sometimes it is because of inappropriate (and legally questionable) traffic shaping policies (for example, throttling website requests they assume to be unimportant or undesirable). OFCOM complaints are not difficult, but provide as much evidence as possible. Meanwhile, it always makes sense to compare other broadband providers and exercise your power to switch.

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