ASA Ban PlusNet Advert for Misleading "Totally Unlimited" Broadband Claim - ISPreview UK

The Advertising Standards Authority has banned an old website advert for Plusnet’s broadband packages, which “misleadingly” claimed to offer a “TOTALLY UNLIMITED” and “Truly unlimited” service with no usage limits. But in reality there was a poorly explained traffic management policy.

In fairness the complaint focused upon an advert that was shown on 20th January 2015 (the ASA sure do like to take their time) and since then the ISP appears to have toned down their language somewhat, preferring instead to merely say “unlimited” rather than add the “totally” or “truly” in front.

Never the less Plusnet responded to say that they “did not impose any restrictions, exclusions or provider imposed limitations on the line speeds of their totally unlimited customers“. Instead, they utilised traffic prioritisation to ensure that users with slower broadband connections got the best Internet user experience.

However the ASA ruled that this policy could have a big impact upon users, especially those who use P2P services, and that it was also poorly explained.

ASA Ruling (REF: A15-292223)

The ASA noted that CAP guidance made clear that “unlimited” claims were likely to be acceptable if provider-imposed limitations that affected the user’s speed or usage of the service were moderate only and were clearly explained in the marketing communication. We considered, however, that a “totally unlimited” claim was stronger, and that consumers would understand it to mean that the service was free from any provider-imposed limitations.

Plusnet did not provide user test data to demonstrate the impact on individual users within a household when subject to traffic prioritisation. However, the information provided regarding their service’s average speed and the minimum bandwidth allocations, indicated that the impact could be significant for those attempting to carry out “de-prioritised” activities such as p2p downloads while another user was carrying out a “prioritised” activity such as streaming.

For example, we understood that if higher priority traffic was using the full capacity of the line and traffic prioritisation applied, Plusnet would allocate up to 95% of the capacity of the line to the higher priority traffic. p2p traffic’s minimum running capacity would therefore be 5% and so the p2p download would take 20 times as long as if the connection was solely being used for a p2p download.

We noted that the claims were not asterisked or qualified in any way. While there was information on the “Support” pages regarding the policy, we noted it appeared under the heading “How traffic management works” and did not make clear that it was traffic within an individual household that would be prioritised. Therefore, we did not consider the ad made clear that a traffic prioritisation policy existed, how it was applied, or the likely impact for customers.

While we considered that Plusnet’s traffic prioritisation policy was consistent with a service described as “unlimited”, because we considered that the policy had not been adequately explained in the ad, and was contrary to consumers’ understanding of a service described as “totally unlimited”, we concluded that the ad was likely to mislead.
In the end the ASA banned the promotion in its current form and advised the ISP to only describe their service as totally unlimited if “there were no provider-imposed limitations to the service and to explain clearly any limitations they applied“. Not that it matters now because this was over one year ago and any damage has probably already been done.

On the other hand this should be taken as a warning, albeit not a very strong one, to other ISPs that may be attempting to use similar wording and restrictions.