This blogpost has been updated, please see the bottom for more recent edits.
I work for an ISP, Andrews & Arnold Ltd. We are a small provider, catering for business users who value quality and technical adeptness over cost. That’s not to say we are expensive. We believe we offer “good value” even if that comes at a higher price sometimes. We are currently ranked #2 in the UK by reviewers on the popular (unbiased but, strangely, unaccredited by Ofcom) comparison site http://www.ispreview.co.uk/review/top10.php.
Sadly a trend in the broadband industry (it was bound to happen) has been to treat all broadband offerings as being “basically the same” and compare only based on one attribute; price. In other markets, where the product delivered is far simpler (for example, mains electricity), this makes perfect sense. But in the broadband market, there are far far too many variables, both technical and ‘social’ (for example, quality of technical support) which can alter the real value of an offering.
Regularly we hear stories from customers migrating to us that compare us favourably with their prior provider, usually in terms of technical setups, features, facilities, support or whatever.
To re-iterate, I am saying that, for electricity, or gas, or whatever, price based comparison is good. But for broadband (and maybe even for mobile telephony) it is not good.
To this end we were all surprised when “Ofcom accredited” comparison sites started springing up. And even advertising on the TV!
There are two sites that have been around for a long time, and compare based on customer reviews and ratings; these being ISPReview.co.uk and ThinkBroadband.com but neither of these claims to be Ofcom accredited. Both have been around many years, however, and are trusted sources of useful, true, and “taking a broad view of the market”, all inclusive, information. We have been listed on those for many years, and had no trouble becoming listed.
I have to report, that these Ofcom accredited comparison sites can receive no such praise.
Ofcom lists six comparison sites at its page on the topic; http://consumers.ofcom.org.uk/price-comparison/. After we discount the ones that do not cover Broadband (BillMonitor, and Mobilife) we are left with four :
For some time now, we have been exchanging communications with BroadbandChoices hassling them as to why they do not list Andrews & Arnold amongst their providers. Their television advert claims they compare all the best deals. We have received a variety of excuses for why we cannot be listed but nothing that sounds sensible or logical.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=et0MO8CGhmA <– TV advert
Today I decided to mystery shop (by phone) one of the sites in question. I dialled the number atop the Broadband.co.uk “help” page http://www.broadband.co.uk/help/ ; namely 0800 093 0405. What immediately surprised me was that it was answered by someone claiming to be from “Simplify Digital”. Fishy!
I initially queried whether any of the ISPs they list supports IPv6. This is not such an unreasonable question. The Internet has run out (almost) of IPv4 address space, and more enlightened providers are now offering both IPv4 and IPv6 addresses. This is not confined to small niche ISPs like A&A. Some bigger players are starting to make noises. FaceBook and Google are already hosting their sites on both IPv4 and IPv6.
The “expert” that I spoke to (he was described as an expert by the website and by the voice over the hold music) had never heard of IPv6. Let me re-iterate that. An “expert” working for an “Ofcom accredited” broadband comparison site had no idea what IPv6 was. I said that I already had IPv6 on my current line. He asked who I was with, I said Andrews & Arnold. He had not heard of Andrews & Arnold (less surprising).
I said that there had been several providers I’d heard of, including A&A but which were not listed on his site. We then had a discussion about why this was. Apparently BroadbandChoices, Broadband.co.uk, Cable.co.uk are all supplied their comparison system by SimplifyDigital. So in order to get an ISP listed, one would have to make an approach to SimplifyDigital.
Not just that, but it transpires that all of the other sites callcentres are run by the same firm. So what you believe to be “independent”, “unbiased”, and “Not just from the broadband big boys like Virgin Media, BT and Sky, but from many of the smaller providers too”, is, in reality, four faces of the same, incomplete data, delivered by people who really are not experts, and all under a veil of validity handily provided by a telecoms regulator.
This is yet another example, I am sad to say, of a situation where Ofcom would be better leaving things alone. The “accreditation” gives undeserved authenticity to sites which actually provide more customers to a smaller group of bigger providers; providers not uniformly renouned for their quality of customer service.
EDIT: Thursday 7th March 2013. Someone commenting on this blog suggested I had not done my research properly and had made a factually incorrect statement. I therefore post the call recording (warts and all).
EDIT: Thursday 7th March 12:50pm. Emily Church from BroadbandChoices has taken the time to comment on the blog and answered some of my questions, as well as correcting some inaccurate information that I had reported based on the call recording above. See her comment below.
1. It seems we should be considering BroadbandChoices entirely separate from the others, despite the impression given to me by the “expert” I spoke to. The comparison calculator technology we use on on their site was developed, built and is owned completely in house.
2. The callcentre is also not answering BroadBandChoices’ phones. Not sure why he’d have given me that impression. Very unprofessional.
I would however say that we have attempted to get listed by the site and haven’t found it easy (and have even felt a bit “fobbed off”). So my critique there stands, but we’ll have another go using the details that Emily has provided us now.
I would also say that my criticism of the other sites, for the moment, stands, and my general comments about the whole business of primarily comparing based on price. I would still argue that the two best broadband comparison sites are ISPReview and ThinkBroadband, neither of which, ironically, is OfCom accredited.
EDIT: Wednesday 13th March 2013. I have now had an email from Miles Northrop from Cable.co.uk, the forth comparison site I mention above. He asks if I could update my post to correct the assertion that the comparison system on Cable.co.uk was supplied by SimplifyDigital (as I was told). I will quote his email directly on this matter :
“This is untrue. Much of our time, effort and resources went into the production of our website and its comparison system, so it’s very important to us that the assertion it’s provided by anyone else is corrected.”
I have emailed Miles back asking him to post a comment with his views on this blog. Since we’ve had written feedback from pretty much all of his competitirs, it’d be nice to complete the set with some response from him!