An independent watchdog body has urged the UK telecoms regulator to come up with a mandatory code of practice for UK broadband ISPs, to allay user concerns that they are being short-changed over broadband speeds.

The independent Consumer Panel advises Ofcom and other industry bodies on consumer issues. In an open letter, it has asked the UK telecoms regulator to take the lead in producing a mandatory code of practice for internet service providers (ISPs) "to address consumer concerns about advertised broadband connection speeds."

"We would like to see Ofcom leading discussions with industry to produce an enforceable code of practice that would be mandatory for ISPs," said Colette Bowe, Chairman of the Ofcom Consumer Panel. The code of practice asks ISPs to commit to the following:

- Inform consumers, during the sales process, about the theoretical maximum line speed they could expect.

- Provide clear information upfront about the factors that can affect line speed.

- Contact customers two weeks after installation to provide them with the actual line speed supported by their line.

- If the actual line speed is significantly lower than the package they bought, consumers should have a penalty-free choice to move to a different package or, in certain circumstances, opt-out from their contract.

Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards, responding to the Consumer Panel's open letter, said that consumers should have access to accurate information so that they can make an informed decision and sign up to the most appropriate broadband package available.

"We have already started discussions with leading ISPs to see how meaningful information can be provided to consumers," he said.

The national network is often touted as capable of delivering broadband speeds of 8Mbit/s. But in reality, this is often much less, as line speeds decrease the further the distance from a telephone exchange, as well as the quality of the line, and time of day (the more people sharing the line). Ofcom believes that the average headline speed is approximately 4.6Mbit/s.

The Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA), a trade body which represents dozens of ISPs, suggests that consumers simply ask their ISP what 'typical' speed it can supply.

"Every broadband connection's speed will be different," the ISPA said. "Even neighbouring houses supplied by the same provider can receive different speeds due to a range of factors including the wiring of the house and the amount of cable for each house used in the local exchange."

"Customers should never choose an ISP based on price alone and should always choose an ISPA member."

But analyst house Ovum thinks that the broadband industry has itself to blame for user focus on broadband speeds. "The broadband industry has been getting itself into a twist lately with regards to broadband speeds. Unfortunately it only has itself to blame. Ever since broadband was launched in the late 90s/early 00s, the marketing emphasis has been on speed and price."

It added that there was little point in the ISPs crying foul therefore when consumers complain that they are not getting what they were promised.

Unfortunately, as most of the last mile network is copper based, this issue is not going to go away in a hurry, unless someone like BT considers investing in fibre-to-node (FTTN) or fibre to the home (FTTH).

Until then, there is no guarantee the next ISP could offer a better line speed.