Customers will be able to exit contracts for free if they don't get advertised speeds
Ofcom has proposed changes to its codes of practice governing the provision of broadband, which will enhance the rights of consumers and force internet companies to give clearer guidance over internet speeds.
The regulatory body argues that too many customers still fall foul of misleading estimated speeds provided by service providers, leading to a mismatch between the speeds they think they are buying and what they actually receive.
Under the proposals, which are expected to be reviewed over the coming months, ISPs will be required to guarantee a minimum speed before a sale, and provide detailed speed information, such as what a customer can expect at peak times.
Customers will also be able to exit a contract with an ISP at anytime, without charge, if they fail to receive the guaranteed minimum speed, although they will have a short window in which to try and improve the speeds a customer is getting.
This right to exit would also apply to contracts that include phone and pay-TV services bought as part of a broadband package, the first time such a clause has been applied, according to Ofcom.
"We want broadband shoppers to know what they're buying, and what speeds to expect," said Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom's consumer group director. "So we plan to close the gap between what's advertised and what's delivered, giving customers a fuller picture before they commit to a contract."
Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, added: "Many people seek our help each year because their slow and intermittent broadband service falls short of what their contract promised. For most people, a reliable broadband connection is a necessity - so when they don't get what they've paid for they should always have a quick and easy way out of their contract.
"These changes are an important step in giving consumers more power to hold their broadband provider to account for poor service."
The regulator added that customers often choose internet packages based on predicted speeds, but that the realities of day to day internet use mean these speeds can often fall far below what customers have been told to expect.
However, ISPs are technically doing nothing wrong currently, and Ofcom admits that the changes are a result of new policy direction, rather than an attempt to clamp down on rogue providers. Ofcom's code of practice, first introduced in 2008, has been updated frequently over the years, including in March this year when automatic compensation was introduced to handle slow repairs and missed appointments.
Dan Howdle, consumer telecoms analyst at Cable.co.uk, argues that the changes represent the "final frontier of protection" for UK broadband customers: "Broadband remains to this day, as far as I know, the only service you can still buy with no guarantees about what exactly it is you're going to get. By emphasising the slowest speed a customer is likely to get at peak times, speed numbers are likely to more closely match user experience. Whether or not this benefits the majority of consumers who are, by and large, unaware of how these numbers apply to day-to-day usage is questionable, however."
A final decision will be published early next year, as well as a new consumer guide to help raise awareness of what rights customers have when dealing with their ISPs.