This article was written in 2010 and may contain out of date information. Browse more recent articles.
In Ireland there’s a government department called the Legal Metrology Service or LMS. If you’re not in trade or retail you may not have heard of them, but they have offices throughout the country, they inspect businesses and they make sure that we get what we pay for.
The main role of the LMS is to test and approve measuring instruments. Chances are that the petrol pump you used to fill you car or the scales that weighed your bananas was recently checked by an inspector from the LMS.
The LMS help us to make smart choices and carry on with our day-to-day lives without having to worry that we’re being ripped off all the time. This is a very good thing because nearly everything we buy needs to be measured. It doesn’t matter how much we’re charged as long as we know what we’re getting for that price. That way we can compare goods on a like for like basis, and discriminate on price.
Of course, the LMS is not the only government department that does this kind of work and there are some products out there that are not subject to their kind of rigorous scrutiny. Mobile phone plans are pretty much incomprehensible and financial products, although tightly regulated, can be very difficult to choose between - which is why comparison services like bonkers.ie and the government’s callcosts.ie help us make informed choices on products that would otherwise be very difficult.
Broadband is the granddaddy of complicated products though and the way it’s sold is both peculiar and unique. There is no other product that I can think of that is sold with the words “up to” before they tell you what you *might* get.
Broadband is both carefully measured and not measured very well at all. With most plans you get a certain amount of usage for a certain price every month. Suppliers have no problem measuring this and if you go over your allowance, you pay extra.
With speed it’s a different story. In a recent survey, Irish consumers overwhelmingly stated that speed was the most important factor when choosing a broadband provider, but speeds are never guaranteed. Almost all providers have plans that charge more for higher speed connections, but speed is still subject to line quality, distance and baffling things like contention ratios. With wireless and mobile broadband there are also factors like-line-of-sight and proximity that seriously affect connections and download speeds.
It’s hard to imagine going into a pub, asking for a pint, receiving a glass that’s half full for your fiver and then being told that the pub doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get a full pint. If you complain, the barman explains that they can only offer “up to” a pint, and how much you get depends on how far you are sitting away from the bar and how many people are in the pub!
But that’s just it with broadband, you may be paying for a 7Mb connection but only getting 4Mb. Now 4Mb down is very fast and will do the job just fine, but I’m pretty sure I’m not going to get a 40% refund because I’m not receiving the stated 7Mb download speed.
Broadband carriers will say that there are many factors that affect speed and they are right, but I think they are selling it the wrong way around. Speed is the most important factor for most of us so suppliers should have a stated or guaranteed minimum rather than saying that you could get “up to” 5Mb or 7Mb and then frequently delivering far less.
Most terms and conditions explain away the “up to” caveat by saying that the connection is shared by other people (contention ratio) along with the quality of your line/cable etc. This can be true, but then shouldn’t there be a requirement to test the service available before customers sign on for their (usually one year) contract and tell them what they can expect their minimum connection speed to be?
Having tested both my home ISP and my work connection today, I found that both performed very well. Upload speeds for both were right on the money and download speeds were shy of the mark but still very decent. We seem to be able to deliver good quality broadband in urban areas but I have yet to see a connection from any supplier that matches the speeds they tell us we could get.
Could the communications regulator Comreg also act as an LMS for the broadband industry? We could use a weights and measures department for the information age that could help simplify the way we’re sold and billed for broadband.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.