ASA Tells BT to Stop Using "Misleading" Fibre Broadband Availability Dates - ISPreview UK
The on-going rollout of superfast capable “fibre broadband” (FTTC/P) services across the UK by BT has hit a snag after the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled that the revised estimated service availability dates, which BTOpenreach supply, were “likely to mislead consumers” because they were not based on a proper analysis.

Anybody familiar with the industry knows that the service availability dates supplied by BTOpenreach’s website should always be taken with a big pinch of salt. Indeed the operators roll-out is a complex one, which can be impacted by many unpredictable factors (blocked cable ducts, unexpected power supply woes etc.). As such the result of missing an upgrade date is nothing new and over the years we’ve seen plenty of examples where an areas actual upgrade date has slipped by anything from a few months to more than a year.

Both Openreach and BT usually attempt to clarify this by saying things like, “Forecast dates are estimates only and are subject to change” or “Dates may be subject to change due to factors outside our control such as; delays agreeing cabinet locations with your local council or unforeseen issues encountered during the construction of your street cabinet.” So far, so normal, albeit perhaps frustratingly so to those who keep seeing the dates for their area(s) missed.

In order to keep consumers better informed Openreach has recently improved the roll-out information available on their website checker. The information now includes, where relevant, delay reason codes at street cabinet level, when a date changed or when a cabinet was removed from the programme.

However, despite all this, a group of three people have decided that the forecasts published on both BT and BTOpenreach’s website(s) form part of advertising for a service and as such they have complained to the ASA that the estimated dates are often misleading “because in their experience the quoted dates were frequently put back“.

Openreach’s Response to the ASA Complaints

Openreach said they set the initial estimated forecast dates using a complex timeline, building in reasonable allowances for all the associated activities they anticipated would be required. They also included extra time for unforeseen circumstances. In ‘at risk areas’ an additional three months was added to the estimated ‘ready for service’ dates. On those occasions when delays occurred because of circumstances outside their direct control, they would initially push the advertised estimated date back by three months, unless they had specific data which meant they could provide a shorter period.

This would be based on the input of data from within Openreach and also from third parties. If it then became apparent that it would not be possible to continue, because, for example, planning permission had been refused or power could not be connected, they would remove the deployment date from the checker. They explained that in those situations where multiple date changes were likely to happen, a cabinet would be moved to the end of the Superfast Fibre Access programme.

If the issues could not be resolved the cabinet would be removed from the programme. They said they were unable to provide information regarding the percentage of the success rate of putting cabinets into service by either the original date advertised or by revised dates, where applicable. They also said that as part of their normal review process, dates may be brought forward in which case they would update the checker with the new, improved, date as soon as possible.
But Openreach’s reasoning appears to have had little impact on the ASA, which concluded that the operator did not use a “robust method of calculation” to reach their revised estimates (i.e. the ASA was actually “satisfied” with the initial estimate given by Openreach, but not by how any later / revised changes were calculated).

ASA Ruling – Ref: A14-273451

Although both ads contained disclaimers that the dates were estimates, we considered that consumers would still expect those estimates to be robust, including when those dates were revised following the initial estimate. We acknowledged that, because of the type of work being carried out, unforeseen issues, as well as the reliance on the cooperation of external parties, would sometimes cause delays and therefore the initial advertised dates might not be met.

We understood that when that happened, the forecast date rolled back three months. If the problem was not resolved, the date would roll back by another month. While we acknowledged that it was Openreach’s intention to resolve the delay as quickly as possible, we considered that, as with the original date, the revised date needed to be based on a robust calculation of the time it was likely to take, rather than simply adjusting the date until the service was available or abandoned.

We considered that, although the original advertised dates were based on a likely estimated timescale to completion, the revised dates were likely to mislead consumers, because they were not based on an analysis of how long the delays might possibly take. We therefore concluded that the revised dates presented on both availability checkers were misleading.
The result is that the ASA told Openreach to “ensure that estimated dates displayed on their checker were based on a robust calculation, and were not routinely rolled back without specific information being taken into account“.

Meanwhile BT’s Consumer division has similarly been told not to display estimated dates on their checker “unless they could substantiate that Openreach, as the provider of the fibre broadband infrastructure, were using a robust method to calculate those dates“.

At this point we can see both sides of the problem, although there’s still a question mark in our minds about whether or not such estimates even qualify as an “advertisement“. Many other operators, such as Virgin Media, also use estimates and by nature such things are open to the possibility of significant change, although the ASA doesn’t appear to clarify what it would deem to be a suitably “robust” approach.

On the other hand, Openreach’s approach to the revision of estimated availability dating does appear to be rather linear. We suspect that they could probably be more accurate, such as by basing estimates on when a power company is anticipated to reach a resolution (although the power company may also supply a flaky estimate) and the likely availability of engineers. But by nature there will always be a strong degree of uncertainty involved in any such revision, which cannot easily be quantified.

At the end of the day the service will be ready when it’s ready and that will be irrespective of whatever revisions are made to the estimate. Clearly network operators will now all need to be much more careful and in turn it’s possible that this may result in consumers being given less and not more information. Will that help or hinder? In any case we’re currently trying to find out how Openreach intends to meet the new demand and will report back.

UPDATE 9:16am

A BTOpenreach spokesperson informs that the ruling relates to an old version of the Openreach website and during the past year they’ve improved the site and process for communicating fibre “go-live” dates to address the ASA’s concerns.