That Word -- I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means...
UK's marketing regulator, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) – has censured Virgin Media for claiming that their broadband is unlimited. The ASA's ruling, the first to use new guidance on use of the term 'unlimited', prevents the fastest of the UK's main ISPs from using the line: Unlimited downloads: Download and browse as much as you like with no caps and no hidden charges. The regulator also warned Virgin Media to watch out for their use of the terms unlimited and "no caps" in the future.
The complaint was bought by the UK’s biggest broadband providers Sky and BT on the grounds that Virgin Media broadband deals are subject to traffic management than should be regarded as having a more than moderate effect on users.
Sky also argued that the "no caps" claim was misleading as it implied there was no traffic management imposed on the connection at all.
The ASA agreed.
It's the principle, not the proportion
That reveals, for the first time, how the ASA is likely to rule on its help note on the advertising of unlimited in the future., a little vaguely, that the term is acceptable when the, "provider-imposed limitations that affect the speed or usage of the service are moderate only." It turns out that a moderate effect on the UK's internet consumers is, in the ASA's eyes, very little to do with a high proportion being affected.
Virgin Media said they believed their interference in customers' connections was hardly severe since only around 1.7% to 2.3% of their users had their lines slowed.
Evidently, the ASA are thinking of a different form of moderation.
That small proportion of Virgin Media bandwidth hogs can expect a speed reduction of 50% (see full details of the policy here).
That policy is decidedly immoderate in the ASA's eyes "regardless of whether a particular individual user would be affected": it's the principle that users, all users, can expect a certain standard of service from unlimited deals that counts, not the proportion of actual users that are likely to be affected.
As well as bowing their heads contritely, Virgin Media have adjusted their 50% throttle to a slightly more moderate 40% of the users' original speed.
BT and Sky complained to the ASA without having to worry that anyone would point out any planks in their eyes: both ISPs offer truly unlimited deals traffic management free.
Other, less download focused, broadband providers may have some cause for concern as a result of this ruling, however.
EE, for example, manage traffic at peak times on all of their unlimited packages so depending on how customers actually find their traffic managed that could be a problem.
The Post Office is another good example of an ISP that may be getting a little jittery at the news. Post Office broadband users have a 100GB a month data limit after which the provider warns and then cuts off its high rolling customers. Advertising guidelines state that, "the legitimate user [should] incur no additional charge or suspension of service as a consequence of exceeding any usage threshold."
In that case, however, the Post Office could argue that those downloading more than 100GB a week are not legitimate users but that's another argument for another day.
No ASA virgins
If other providers are quaking at the prospect of an ASA wrist slap, however, it's all in a day's work for Virgin Media.
The provider's advertisements are often as likely to poke and provoke competitors as they are to actually entice customers.
Just look at the company's, ultimately mainly censured, campaign against every other ISP's speed advertisements
, for example.Julia edits UK broadband site Choose.net. They covered this story in more depth here.