Updating internet regulation in the UK

Today, we’re taking a closer look at recent developments in the United Kingdom, with the release of a Voluntary Code of Practice (VCOP) by a long-time client of SamKnows: Ofcom.

The aim of the VCOP is to aid and protect internet users when buying broadband products. ISPs choose to follow the codes, which is exciting, because it points to a UK telecoms industry that values fair competition and strives to improve customer care.

How SamKnows helps ISPs

The VCOP test methodology is built from the SamKnows measurement platform that Ofcom has used for almost 10 years. The SamKnows test methodology also fully supports all the VCOP requirements:

  • Our router SDKs embed our tests directly into ISP customers’ routers.
  • SamKnows analytics provides easy analysis of all measurement data.
  • SamKnows One management suite is a central system for controlling all test agents.

All these elements work together for extremely accurate, very large-scale internet performance measurement that is 100% compliant with VCOP’s regulations.

Ofcom’s VCOP

The Voluntary Codes of Practice have been around for a while now, however, the March 2019 update will account for a full range of technologies other than xDSL, such as FTTP and Cable, and is based around three core principles:

  1. Providing more relevant information that’s clear for consumers to find throughout the sales process, including a more realistic speed estimate and guaranteed speed at point of sale.
  2. Better management of speed-related problems.
  3. An easier process to exit your contract if you’re experiencing speed problems, with no penalties.

The VCOP methodology is based upon the Ofcom UK Home Broadband Performance reports, although with different requirements for peak times (for businesses that means 12pm-2pm, and for residential consumers 8pm-10pm). This testing methodology includes requirements such as cross traffic detection (ensuring the line is idle when testing), running tests using 3 TCP threads over HTTP 1.1, locations of test servers, and accounting for factors such as TCP ramp-up periods.

VCOP ISPs must provide Ofcom with data to support their marketing claims, as well as publishing their full testing methodology. ISPs can collect their test results via internal testing or a third-party such as SamKnows.

During the sales process, and in documentation afterwards, consumers will be given various speeds (noted below) that they can expect to receive. ISPs will also provide people with information on what to do if their speeds drop below that level, including their right to exit if speed problems persist. So, if you’re an internet user and experience intermittent or continuous speeds that are below the ‘minimum guaranteed speed’, you can switch service provider more easily.

Right to exit

The only way an ISP can dispute the speeds that a user is getting, is by an engineer visiting the home to perform a speed test, or by running an end-to-end speed test from the user’s CPE or hardware device, by connecting a SamKnows Whitebox via Ethernet.

Internet speeds

VCOP defines a number of different speeds, their purpose, and how to calculate them based on different technologies:

Minimum speed

This speed is used as a basis for the right to exit defined above, regularly getting speeds below this and the lack of a resolution means the ISP is required to give the user a penalty-free right to exit.

Normally available range

This is a range of speeds that are likely achievable most of the time.

Maximum speed

The highest speed that is likely achievable.

These speeds are calculated for Cable and FTTP by:

  • Determine the average speed for peak times and their quietest hour for each test subject in the test panel (which can be selected by the ISP); and then for each product apply the following functions over those sets of averages.
  • Normally available speed upper: 80th percentile of peak times
  • Normally available speed lower: 20th percentile of peak times
  • Minimum guaranteed: 50% of advertised
  • Maximum speed: 80th percentile of quietest hour
  • And the speeds for xDSL products (ADSL, FTTC etc.):

For each panellist, determine their average peak and quiet hour percentages of sync-speed. Average those values across the entire set of panellists on the same sync-speed and product combination, to establish two coefficients: peak and off-peak, derived from lines with ‘similar characteristics’.

  • Normally available speed upper: 80th percentile, reduced by peak coefficient.
  • Normally available speed lower: 20th percentile, reduced by peak coefficient.
  • Minimum guaranteed: 10th percentile, reduced by peak coefficient.
  • Maximum speed: 80th percentile, reduced by quiet hour coefficient.

Sample sizes

Ofcom also instructs that samples should be of a certain size, with all panellists required to be reporting daily at both peak and off-peak times. For nationwide ISPs these are the requirements:

  • xDSL: 500 exchanges tested (ideally 3 lines at each) per product/sync-speed combination.
  • FTTP: 500–700 premises per product
  • Cable: 250+ CMTSs, at least 3 lines per product.

Advertising standards

In a complementary fashion, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), that works alongside the UK Advertising Standards Agency (ASA), have produced new guidelines for ISPs advertising their internet packages to residential customers. These new guidelines include a testing framework, and update to marketing materials. As of March 2018, all those broadband packages that include an ‘up to’ speed, based on those received by 10% of consumers, will have to advertise ‘average’ speeds that are available to at least 50% of users at peak times. CAP and ASA also mention that marketing should include factors such as signal attenuation on ADSL2+, and whether traffic management will interfere with customers’ speeds, to not be misleading. Helpfully, those ISPs who sign up to the VCOP can provide the same data to CAP to prove that they comply.

Implementation dates

The new changes to the CAP/ASA guidelines came into effect on the 23rd May 2018 and ISPs have been actively working to ensure compliance since early this year. The much wider reaching Ofcom Voluntary Code of Practice comes into effect on the 1st March 2019 and already ISPs are working to ensure that they’re compliant before it comes into effect. If you would like more information on UK market regulation, or how you can make sure you comply with the VCOP or ASA regulations, please contact us at community@samknows.com.