Ads mislead over broadband Internet access pricing, regulator warns

The U.K. advertising watchdog has set out new rules for ISPs advertising their services

Pricing in ads for broadband Internet access is too often misleading and needs tighter regulation.

That's the verdict of the U.K.'s Advertising Standards Authority, which on Wednesday gave ISPs six months to clean up their act before it introduces new rules on how they can promote their services.

The monthly cost of broadband Internet access bundled with fixed-line telephone service ought to be simple enough to determine.

However, after viewing a typical ad, only 23 percent of people could correctly identify the cost in a study by the ASA and the U.K.'s communications regulator, Ofcom.

By presenting the cost of broadband service and line rental separately, and giving undue prominence to limited time introductory offers, contract length and one-off costs, ISPs are able to disguise the true cos of their service.

It's not just a problem in the U.K., either: ISPs in France too display introductory prices that are only valid for six or twelve months, and often only a third or less of the price once the offer expires. They bury the duration of the offer and the full price in much smaller type, or even hide it altogether in online presentations, requiring suspicious customers to click or mouseover to reveal it.

The ASA-Ofcom study found that 22 percent of participants still couldn't work out the total cost of service per month even after being prompted to review the ad, and 81 percent were unable to calculate the lifetime cost of a broadband contract.

From Oct. 31, the ASA will require advertisers to show all-inclusive up-front and monthly costs, without separating out line rental. It also wants them to give greater prominence to the minimum contract length, the cost after initial discounts expire, and any up-front costs that might eat into the headline discounts.

Unfortunately for broadband customers, advertisers risk little if they flout the ASA's rules. The strongest penalty it can impose is to require that the offending ad be withdrawn, making enforcement a giant game of Whac-a-Mole as advertisers can push out a different creative and start again.

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