How broad before you can call it broadband?

Industry split so what hope for the consumer?

Make no mistake, today's ruling by the advertising watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), concerning the definition of 'broadband' could have big repercussions for the UK's Internet industry.

The ruling highlights the confusion caused by a sector which has failed to come up with a consistent industry-wide definition of broadband that can be marketed to consumers.

This has been made worse still by shifting definitions and extreme marketing hype - a conflict between the technically possible and the somewhat far-fetched view of what broadband could deliver.

For its part, the made a judgement based on consumers' perception of broadband, rather than on a factual definition. For while it acknowledged that the cableco's 128Kbps service met industry definitions for broadband laid down by regulator Oftel (well, one of Oftel's definitions), it also ruled that because it considered most consumers would understand broadband to mean a service of upwards of 500Kbps, it concluded that the claim "broadband", without qualification, was "likely to mislead".

In one sense, NTL is right to be angered by the ASA's ruling. However, it's not just about NTL since the decision highlight the failings of the industry - and Government - to agree a definition of broadband.

Take the Government, for example. It recently changed its definition of broadband to "a generic term describing a range of technologies operating at various data transfer speeds" adding that if it's marketed as broadband, then it is broadband. Frankly, this is so broad it is meaningless and should be ditched immediately.

Oftel, on the other hand, has two different views on broadband. It regards broadband as a "higher bandwidth, always-on services, offering data rates of 128Kbps and above" - a view cited by NTL in its ASA case.

However, Oftel also rates NTL's 128k service as not being broadband.

According to one of its recent reports: "Oftel also includes NTL's 128k offering in the narrowband market. Although this is marketed as 'broadband', it has only some, not all, of the key characteristics of broadband. It is always on and allows use of the telephone at the same time but is not as fast as other services marketed as broadband."

It goes on: "Oftel's latest residential survey found that the main reason for getting broadband was faster access, mentioned by 57 per cent of respondents compared to only eight per cent who mentioned simultaneous voice calls and six per cent who mentioned permanent connection. Oftel believes that for this reason these services should be regarded as narrowband rather than broadband for the purposes of this review."

Funnily enough, The Register pointed out this contradiction more than a week ago and Oftel has still to reply to requests to clarify what it believes is, and is not, broadband.

If the regulator and Government can't agree, what hope is there for the rest of the industry? More to the point, what hope is there for ordinary punters who are being bombarded with confusing messages about broadband?

And there's more. We asked BT Wholesale for its definition of broadband.

"We don't have one," said a spokesman.

However, he did explain that BT regards its 512Kbps, always-on ADSL service as broadband - not, though, slower always-on ADSL services it plans to launch in the future.

AOL UK, on the other hand, regards broadband as being more than 400Kbps, always on and enabling punters to use the phone line at the same time.

"That's the consumers' view of broadband and, therefore, it's ours as well," said a spokesman.

"We need an acceptable definition - otherwise, how do people know what broadband is," he added.

Freeserve, which made the complaint against NTL, also agrees that speed is important when defining broadband.

A spokeswoman for the ISP told us: "There is a great deal of confusion all round. It's about time Oftel and the Government cleared up this uncertainty."

Telewest echoed these views: "Anything below 512Kbps simply doesn't live up to consumers' expectation and the hype surrounding broadband."

If nothing else, today's ruling by the ASA shows just how confusing this matter can be. However, it is up to the Government and/or the industry to come up with a workable definition for broadband. The confusion has to be cleared up for the sake of the mass-market, for nothing will damage their confidence more than signing up to a slow speed "broadband" service and being disappointed when it doesn't live up to their expectations.

One last thing,just to stir things up still further. While the debate over what is - and isn't - broadband rages on, there are, you know, some people who think broadband only starts from speeds starting at 1Mb... ®

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