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No 10 urged to throttle 'unlimited' broadband claims

Fair use still ain't fair

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A petition on the Downing Street website is urging Tony Blair to put a stop to broadband advertising which trumpets "unlimited" broadband, despite reining in users with usage limits.

At time of writing, the petition, which is open until 10 June, had just over 1,500 signatories to the statement: "We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Insist that OFCOM and the ASA stop Broadband Providers advertising 'unlimited' services that are in fact limited in the small print or by un-defined fair use policies."

The government promises to respond to everyone who signs an e-Petition on the Downing Street site.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) precedent governing "unlimited" broadband offers was set in an adjudication involving a British Gas home phone service in 2005. The ASA said "unlimited" offers with fair use caveats were permissible, provided the caveats were included in the advertisement, and exclude only "atypical users".

Pipex has become the most recent of a long line of ISPs whose manoeuvres around fair use have angered punters. It is in the process of selling its customer base to the highest bidder, but found time to send out letters highlighting the fair use policy on its "unlimited" Pipex Max product. It warned users to change their behaviour or face further action.

That letter, sent in mid-February, was followed up this month with a second round telling violators they would be cut off from 28 March. Pipex customers have complained to The Register that Pipex's fair use policy is ill-defined, not specifying a gigabyte limit. The company has said it operates the policies in this way for the benefit of the majority of its subscribers.

Pipex's policies carry a catch-all rider too, which is symptomatic of most ISPs' current stance on the issue. The fair use page says: "Changes made to the Policy become effective upon posting of the modified Policy to this URL. It is the User's responsibility to ensure their awareness of any such changes."

Billing comparison site uSwitch added its critical voice to the debate earlier this month, calling for the ASA to ban "unlimited" campaigns. uSwitch's head of communications services Steve Weller chipped in with: "If these policies are to be classed as 'fair', broadband companies need to clearly define these limits and explain to customers what will happen when they are exceeded."

Though distinct, the issues of muddy fair use policies and "unlimited" advertising are combining to undermine public faith in the broadband industry, which is seeing rapid consolidation towards a handful of powerful conglomerates: a process unlikely to foster trust.

With the increasing popularity of online gaming and forthcoming data-heavy attractions like video platform Joost, it's likely more people will find themselves falling foul of fair use policies, and as TalkTalk discovered to its cost with its stuttering "free" broadband launch, it can be better to be up front with consumers about what you can offer. ®

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