Due to our hectic schedules and limited time to spend on thinkbroadband alongside busy lives at work, we often have lots of ideas which don’t see the light of day as we lack the resources to make them work. One of these has been what we have internally called ‘broadband label’.
Although the focus of our site is much more than about comparing broadband services, this particular task is one of the key reasons why users come to visit alongside trying to fix problems with an existing broadband service.
One of the problems in comparing broadband services is the different ways in which service providers price their products. For example, in a very competitive market, some ISPs will provide ‘unlimited broadband’ and restrict their service by way of traffic management, whilst others have a usage allowances which limit how much you can download without incurring further charges. (Read more on a blog article I wrote about this trade-off on the Enta blog). One has a fixed variable (however many gigabytes) whilst the other claims to be ‘unlimited’ but has a system to control your usage, which may not be transparent so judging its effects will be difficult. These various factors make it difficult to compare two, let alone three or more products side-by-side when making a buying decision as the information is presented in different ways.
Often, even finding the detailed specifications for a product is hard work. For example, whilst researching the story on the costs of using Internet on your mobile phone, we trawled through the small print within the contracts of all the major mobile network operators. We naturally read a lot of contracts and package details, so you would think it was easy to find all the costs involved, but between two of us, we often found one of us missed some detail which affected the calculation. The way in which these ‘hidden charged’ are buried in terms and conditions make comparison artificially difficult. Even some of the PR departments/companies working for network operators couldn’t give us a straight answer on the costs in some situations!
This is where the idea of a ‘broadband label’ would be very useful–Mirrored on the concept of the EU ‘energy label‘ which tells you how energy efficient your new washing machine or dishwasher is, it would provide you with all the key information about broadband packages in a simple format which allows you to compare one package versus another.
You could argue this is the role of broadband comparison sites, however our view is that users should be able to compare a service to another without needing to rely on a third party which often has financial interests in you signing up with one of the providers they feature. Also, websites which compare broadband services often only list a small number of providers (i.e. the ones that pay them).
Whilst we’ve never selected providers based on who pays commission, we have a listing criteria too, and there are many legitimate providers who may not be listed on our site, but nevertheless provide services you may be comparing. Whilst we try to cover more variables, inevitably we can’t cover everything. And once you work out how to present data, someone like AAISP finds a different way to charge for services (units cost of which varies by wholesale provider and time period).
Where we got stuck…
We spent quite some time trying to work out how this could be done, creating mock-ups and writing specifications. It’s relatively simple to build a simple label, but the devil is in the detail when it comes to broadband. Do we talk about headline speeds, or actual speeds? If we go with actual speeds, what measure do we use which is inclusive and accurate? How do we measure the qualitative factors? How do we deal with bundles and requirements for BT phone lines (or cable line)? Do we take into consideration availability (bearing in mind a super-fast broadband service that would look amazing on the label wouldn’t be available everywhere in the UK, so a consumer who tries to buy it might be re-directed to buy another service during the sales process, at which point they should compare that service against the other alternatives again)?
In the end, we spent quite some time coming up with ideas on XML based specifications on how providers could specify products, including the multitude of options and pricing methods. This would also provide an extensible framework that would allow other organisations to add their own data to a label, so for example Ofcom could include the findings of their speeds research.
We concluded that we would probably want to launch the broadband label concept as a separate website (unlike the creative on the right which has our name on it) in the hope that it would become industry best practice, rather than seen as something we’re promoting for our own interests.
The project is quite complex when you start looking at it in detail and we certainly can’t take full credit for it as we had suggestions along this line from people including Mark Lang, founder of ISP Eclipse Internet among others.
Quite independently, Mike Kiely who runs the Better Broadband Britain campaign has come up with a ‘kitemark’ idea which is very much along these lines. The FCC have also this year floated similar ideas.
We believe that developing such an idea within the industry would be helpful to show to regulators that consumers can make informed decisions with the relevant information, and avoid a solution developed by the regulators. We have already seen issues with broadband speed advertising and the way ‘unlimited broadband‘ is sold causing issues with both Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority.
We still hope to work on this and bring together the key players in the industry, however there’s a lot of work ahead on trying to find a way to make sure the label (sticker, kite-mark or otherwise) is meaningful and not simply going to result in broadband providers devising ever more complex plans to make their products look rosy on the label but full of hidden charges.