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Will the Real Fibre Optic Broadband Service Please Stand Up

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013 (6:30 am) - Score 49,089

When is a “fibre optic” broadband service not fibre optic? The answer might seem obvious but if so then it’s not something that the industry appears keen to respect. But just what does the term fibre optic actually mean and why are ISPs so eager to use and in some cases abuse it.

The use of common terminology, such as “broadband”, to describe internet connectivity is both useful and fraught with difficulties because of the way in which everybody can choose to define the same thing differently. We explored this problem in detail with our 2010 article – The Definition of UK Superfast Next Generation Broadband.

But the term “fibre optic” is different from traditional service separators like “super-fast broadband”, “ultra-fast”, “hyper-fast” or possibly even “mega-awesome-lolcat-fast” because it defines a very specific kind of cable and thus, one would hope, should not be as open to misrepresentation. Think you know what fibre optic means? Think again.

What is a Fibre Optic Cable?

Hopefully by now most of you should know that fibre optic cables are made of glass (silica) or plastic, which allow information to be transmitted in the form of light; usually via a low powered laser beam. At its most simple this is a bit like using a torch to send an SOS message to your friend next door, except the light would be going down a cable. It’s simple, fast and the cable itself is incredibly cheap to make.

Naturally this makes optical cables the ideal choice for a new generation of communication services, especially broadband connections with their ever growing capacity demands. Indeed not a month seems to go by without somebody finding a new way to push increasingly incredible amounts of data down a single fibre, such as by splitting light into different wavelengths or twisting it into a vortex.

Suffice to say that using light as a transmission method is massively more efficient than sending electrical signals down old copper wires (e.g. ADSL), which is still the most dominant and traditional way of delivering telephone and internet access services. Unfortunately copper lines are considerably more susceptible to interference and signal degradation over distance, which often makes them slow and unreliable (especially if you live a long way from your telephone exchange).

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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31 Responses
  1. PhilT says:

    I’m not sure the speed of light is useful, as that’s in a vacuum not a fibre and in any case the speed of electrons in copper wiring is similar 🙂

    Likewise “broadband” is a useless term when optical fibre is usually a single wavelength which is as narrow as narrowband can be.

    But the whole public arena thing was broken by Virgin’s use of “Fibre optic broadband” for their coax shared cable product, and the ASA declined to intervene.

    1. “in any case the speed of electrons in copper wiring”

      Electrons actually move around very slowly in electronic circuits – or at least that is what I remember my Physics teacher telling me in the 1970s – it is the “signal” that moves quickly.

    2. PhilT says:

      I suppose as the wire is full of electrons the transmission time (which is very similar to that of a fibre optic) is determined by nudging the charge along the electrons so no one electron (unlike a photon) has to make the whole journey. Put an electron in at one end and one pops out the other ?

    3. Bob says:

      BT tend to do the same though. Perhaps Hybrid Fibre might be slighly better

      The VM network is far better in that it uses coax for the link to the home. BT is still using the twisted pair whicvh is very poor at handling high speed data

    4. Plastivore says:

      Signal propagation in a copper cable is about 2/3 of the speed of light.

      But there is no relevance in there, because the thing that limits the bandwidth in copper cables is not the signal propagation speed, but the physical properties of copper cables, making them sensitive to interferences. That’s why, as explained in this article, the longer your line, the slower the connection. To put it very simply, on a long telephone line, a “bit” will still travel at 200,000 km/s, hence arrive almost instantly at the exchange, but it will need to be sent for a longer time to be more resilient to interferences. A bit like 2 people who need to speak slowly to understand each other if they are far away or in a noisy environment.

      On another note, I think that the use of the term “fiber optic” is allowed, because this is just the first steps leading eventually to FTTH connections. The use of VDSL2 is a good transition to first unroll FTTC, before cabling the last leg and lead to FTTB/FTTH/FTTP. At least, it is much more clever than in France, where only a handful of people have FTTH, and the authorities have not allowed the use of VDSL2 yet.

  2. Piers says:

    It is a good point and one that the industry is just making worse because who is going to pay extra to have real fibre optic when they have been made to believe that is what they have already with an FTTC or similar product.

    Really we should call ADSL, FTTE (Fibre to the Exchange) under the current naming convention.

    1. FibreFred says:

      But what do the customers care about the physical delivery or the speed? I’d say its the latter so the former doesn’t matter too much

    2. Mark Jackson says:

      I think Piers point is that customers might care if the term “fibre optic” wasn’t being diluted in the first place because then the connection between service speed and service solution (technology) would be more tangible and distinct.

      If I buy a Ferrari then I expect a Ferrari because I’m familiar with what Ferrari’s can do, yet if you buy that and get the performance of a Vauxhall Corsa.. Well the Corsa is still a good car but it’s not a Ferrari.

      Granted many consumers just don’t care, so long as the service is good and does all they require, but going forwards they might if fibre optic really was distinct in the way the term suggests it should be.

    3. Stoat says:

      Or perhaps we should call FTTC “VDSL”

  3. DTMark says:

    The article says that the minimum speed delivered by FTTC at its furthest reach is 5Mbps. Firstly, this isn’t actually true, as people with sub 5Mbps “fibre” connections have found out (“3Meg is as good as you’ll get, take or leave” came up in two threads that I read),that on a FTTC service does not mean it’s faulty, you may be able to escape a contract but that’s of limited use if it’s the only tech available to you.

    The minimum FTTC speed is nil/unavailable mostly because the upstream is tending towards nil by the time you’ve gone much beyond 1km of wire and by 2km it’s pretty well useless. The distances vs speeds vary because of the mixed metal, age and general quality of the network or lack thereof for data services.

    So I suppose the main difference between VM’s FTTC and BT’s FTTC is simply that the transmission technology of cable means that in theory everyone can get all the speeds whereas with BT’s FTTC almost nobody will ever see the top package speed. Example: cable is the fastest performer with 100Meg speeds averaging 80Meg+ which FTTC will very rarely get anywhere near.

    So that cable is not technically “fibre” is not the issue which drags speeds down: the coax is not a technical limitation.

    Until you bring congestion into the mix.

    Personally, as I’ve said before, some definitions – “broadband” is 6Meg down or better, NGA is Fibre-to-the-Premises. Hence, ADSL should be called ADSL, VDSL = VDSL (current-gen), cable = Cable, Hyperoptic = NGA FTTP.

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      Good point there, I’ll clarify that it’s BT’s lowest fault level.

    2. Somerset says:

      DTM – your definitions, not anyone elses.

  4. Andy says:

    If a customer ( I include myself) is foolish enough to be taken in by any marketing speak, more fool them. I have never had any career interest in the sector, not at all academic either. If ever, we have FTTC in our area and any ISP, suggested a “Fibre Optic connection” and tried to pass this off as, end to the very end Fibre optic. I will do the same as I did with ISPs offering Adsl2s, when knocking at my door they would always emit “Up to”, without fail my basic understanding of copper line length always bewildered them.

    1. Stoat says:

      Sorry, but as someone who has to deal with customers every day (and salestwats), the potential for confusion is massive. (Try asking for a 1Gb/s fibre tail and getting some drooling cretin selling you FTTC and you’ll understand what I mean)

      “I have fibre, why do I want yours?” “Ours is superfast” “Ours is 1Gb/s, how much faster is yours?” “We sell 100Mb/s fibre, it’s faster” “Do you know how fast 1Gb/s is?” “Not as fast as 100Mb/s” “We shift 500GB/day. Does your unlimited tarriff allows that?” “There’s a cap of 50Gb/month and charges ap[ply above that” “So it’s not really unlimited then is it” “It’s unlimited because it’s not cut off when you hit the free allowance limit”


      (Currently seeking geographical diversity and dark fibre in Surrey. If you’re genuine, contact me here)

    2. matt says:

      @ andy
      “and tried to pass this off as, end to the very end Fibre optic”
      Presumably even better would be to just report this sort of behavior to the OFT or maybe ASA.

    3. matt says:

      I personally don’t really understand how the ASA have allowed the ‘fibre’ advertising on what is just a ‘better’ copper service. Really I think it is a matter for the ASA rather than merely bad practice on the part of the provider.

      Re your surrey requirement if you want to DM me (or post contact details) some address/postcode details (Matt18_) I’d be happy to look at some fiber maps for you.

  5. FibreFred says:

    I’m still not seeing why this is going to be a problem for the customer.

    None of the ISP’s are describing their products as fibre to the premise but not delivering fibre to the premise.

    All that will happen in the future (and already now for some lucky enough) is that they will use the same terms but a higher speed

    Fibre Broadband 160Mbps, 220Mbps, 300Mbps etc etc

    1. DTMark says:

      I would venture that one of the problems for providers is uptake.

      Consider: you get, say, 4Meg on your “up to 8 Meg” ADSL service.

      It gets upgraded to “up to 20Meg ADSL2+”. Still runs at 4 Meg.

      What might it run at if you had “up to 80Meg”?

      Making false, or at best, over-optimistic statements about the tech doesn’t exactly inspire consumer confidence. You and I both know that the up to 80 Meg will almost certainly be quicker than 4 Meg, but, do the customers?

    2. Patrician says:

      “No one is advertising a Ferrari…” I disagree. I’m technologically ignorant, & if I see Fibre Optic promoted I believe it to be fibre optic. I don’t know what that is (though I have more inkling having read this post by Mark Jackson – excellent, clear & comprehensible)- but the buzz (& the advertising hook)is that though more costly it’s superfast & less prone to problems than ASDL. My point is that most people are like me, ie, largely ignorant of the technical aspects & at best go on a mate’s recommendation/the ISP’s claims, which are clearly misleading & designed to be so.
      I agree it should be clarified so the consumer understands what he is getting & what he is not getting, but I’m afraid all the helpful suggestions above will come to naught. In Britain the demands of business lobbies seem always to take priority over the so-called power of the consumer.
      Round here the best speeds seem to be from Virgin, though the charts don’t reveal how well the quoted speeds measure up against price paid/promise made

  6. dragoneast says:

    My PC’s daily quote for today says it all really “Let us be thankful for the fools for without them none of the rest of us could succeed” (= would not be in business) – Mark Twain takes the credit.

    But isn’t it easy, in simple terms landline broadband is DSL Broadband (where speed is dependent on your distance from the fibre node either at the exchange or cabinet), Cable Broadband (from Virgin), or Fibre Broadband (FTTP/B) where your speed is not affected by distance as any copper element has no noticeable effect on the attainable speed. And DSL Broadband comes in variants of Basic (ADSL1/2) Better (ADSL2+ and LLU variants) – where the upload speed at least should be better; and Best (VDSL2 – where the fibre is extended out to the cabinet). Or if those terms are too pejorative, call the Better DSL variant something like Value DSL Broadband (= more expensive)and the FTTC something like Extra Value DSL Broadband (= very expensive). We’ll all understand that you are paying for essentially the same product with jazzier packaging for those that like to be seduced (or just to show off). (It’s the old first, second and third class – the same rickety old train, but you might get a more comfortable seat and more room). The class of broadband is determined by the capability of the slowest part of the public network i.e. the local loop.

  7. zemadeiran says:

    I agree with several comments here,

    This takes us back to a previous post where the issue of market regulation has to come into play in regard to delivered vs advertised up to speeds.

    Tiered pricing would seem to be the only solution and with it customer protection.
    If I get 3mbps I want to pay for 3mbps.

    I know that some will say “the connection cost for each customer will be the same regardless of delivered speed” This however is nothing to do with the public who want value for money along with a stable broadband service.

    Like Mark stated, if you pay for a Ferrari you want a Ferrari and not a mini…

    Imagine going into subway and paying for a sub and only getting half of it as the menu states “up to a full sub!”

    It is completely out of order that the British people are being fucked in broad daylight like this.

    Surely someone can do something?

    1. zemadeiran says:

      Oh and while I am at it…

      Fibre is Fibre!

      The net is our future content and services delivery medium and we will without doubt require 1gbps+ in order to be in a NGA position that brings with it MANY new services we have yet to discover.

      FTTH on demand is a step as long as the playing field is kept level in regard to access.

      If our elected officials do not remove the financial barriers affecting fibre access in this country they will be directly damaging UK plc’s GDP massively.

    2. FibreFred says:

      No-one is advertising a Ferrari…. or advertising FTTH but not delivering FTTH, its not the same

    3. Somerset says:

      What are these ‘financial barriers’ and how do they affect the UK GDP?

    4. FibreFred says:

      And if anyone’s to blame , blame Virgin, they started this misleading advertising without actually making any physical changes to cabling as such, they just rebranded it fibre.

      Taken from their website:-

      “Fibre optic is the fastest

      The mega speeds of up to 100Mb that you can get with Virgin Broadband are thanks to fibre optic cable. It’s made from strands of glass as thin as hair, which carry information by light. This is much, much faster than the copper telephone wire used by other providers. And, unlike broadband down your phone line, fibre optic broadband doesn’t get slower the further away your house is from the telephone exchange.”

      I would read that as they deliver FTTP. obviously they don’t but people still believe they do.

  8. Michael says:

    The question of advertising is clear.

    If you buy a product which has a physical internationally agreed definition – ie Coffee – if they sold you Tea then it is misleading.

    As a customer you are being deivered service either through a copper, coax or fibre connection to the Home. You do not see the “hidden network aspects”.

    For the past 30 years BT, C&W, Colt etc have all sold Fibre connections to Business Customers and used that term.

    If the UK service providers come clean then we can finally get some real understanding into the market.

    This was taken up with the ASA and OFCOM over the past 2 years, but neither really wanted to act. It is beginning to look as if the needs of big business (the SPs) now outweigh the need for truthful customer marketing.

    Not a proud position for UK plc to be in.

  9. JMan says:

    Its time to use our voice and be heard – surely the ASA can’t ignore us all?


    1. Somerset says:

      Just change to ‘fibre optic based’.

  10. Bob says:

    Should wenow be looking at a Full Fibre solution for Urban areas? The cost is likely to be only marginally more than the current FTTC solution . It woul fully combine voice and data on one network. It does not require a second cabinet and active equipment to be installed in the streets

    For it work though it requires a move to Fibre phones and for the old copper network to be recovered. Copper gets a good price. It also stop the cost and increasing disruption of coppler being stolen.

  11. matt says:

    I personally don’t really understand how the ASA have allowed the ‘fibre’ advertising on what is just a ‘better’ copper service. Really I think it is a matter for the ASA rather than merely bad practice on the part of the provider.

    Re your surrey requirement if you want to DM me (or post contact details) some address/postcode details (Matt18_) I’d be happy to look at some fiber maps for you.

  12. Bob says:

    To a great extent the customer does not care and trying to market the product using lots of different acronyms will just add to the confusion

    Proper Marketing by Speed is probably best but even here great confusion has been caused byy markting by the theoretical maximim spped rather than the likely speed

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