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UPDATE ASA Rule UK Fibre Broadband ISP Adverts for Part Fibre Do NOT Mislead

Thursday, Nov 23rd, 2017 (12:01 am) - Score 2,386

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has today determined that it is “not materially misleading” to describe broadband services that use fibre optic cables for only part of the connection to consumers’ homes (e.g. FTTC) as “fibre broadband“, much to the annoyance of UK MPs and critics.

The debate over the use or misuse of “fibre optic” terminology in broadband advertising has been going on for almost a decade and followed an ASA ruling in 2008, which allowed so called “hybrid fibre” or “part fibre” services (e.g. FTTC, G.fast or DOCSIS networks that combine fibre optic with slower metallic copper or aluminium lines) to use the same wording as pure “full fibre” (FTTH/P) ISPs that take the optical fibre all the way to your doorstep.

Opponents of the 2008 decision argue that pure fibre optic ISPs can deliver significantly faster speeds (i.e. they’re technically able to handle multi-Gigabit or even Terabit speeds) and are generally more reliable, while hybrid-fibre services tend to be slower and less reliable. In fairness, experiences do vary (e.g. Virgin Media’s hybrid fibre DOCSIS network performs quite well, while Openreach’s (BT) ‘up to’ 76Mbps FTTC tier often delivers much slower performance than its headline rate).

In the past this debate was less important because pure fibre optic ISPs only covered a tiny area of the UK (at the start of 2017 the figure was about 2%), although the Government has recently committed around £600m of public investment to help boost “full fibre” networks (here) and several senior Government MPs have also put pressure on the ASA to update their approach (here).

The Government’s Digital Minister, Matthew Hancock MP, who since last year has been helping to champion support for “full fibre” networks, said that “adverts should be clear, and if it’s fibre, it should say fibre. If it’s not, it should not.” Meanwhile other MPs, such as Matt Warman, have gone as far as to describe broadband providers as being “complicit in fraud” for their approach to advertising (here).

Matt Warman, MP for Boston and Skegness, said:

“An advertised fibre connection should be entirely fibre – that is to say the fibre to the cabinet options favoured for much of the UK roll-out should not count. The aim of this is twofold: consumers who pay for ‘fibre broadband’ shouldn’t actually be paying for copper broadband, and providers who do offer fibre to the premise should not be equated with those who don’t.”

Meanwhile both Openreach and Virgin Media have each committed to reaching 2 million premises passed with FTTP by around 2019-20 (4 million total) and Openreach are also considering whether or not they can push this to 10 million by 2025.

Meanwhile alternative network providers, such as Gigaclear, Hyperoptic and B4RN, could theoretically add a couple of million more to this aspiration and have also been lobbying the ASA for a change to the current approach (here).

Suffice to say that the market for FTTH/P providers is changing and in April 2017 the ASA finally agreed to review their position on the subject (here). Since then we’ve been waiting to hear whether the watchdog would proceed to take more direction action, although today’s decision appears to be a mixed bag.

Outcome of the Review

Essentially the ASA, having considered all of the evidence provided during the review, has concluded that it is not materially misleading to describe broadband services that use fibre-optic cables for only part of the connection to consumers’ homes as “fibre broadband“.

The review found that: “fibre” is not one of the priorities identified by consumers when choosing a broadband package; that consumers did not notice “fibre” claims in ads; that consumers, when probed, saw it as a shorthand buzzword to describe modern, fast broadband; and that consumers did not believe they would change their previous decisions after the differences between those services and broadband services that use fibre optic cables all the way to the home were explained to them.

The outcome perhaps reflects the problem of trying to change an approach that has long since become established in the consumer subconscious, where the meaning of “fibre” has been diluted over years of use (or misuse) alongside slower slower hybrid (part) fibre technologies. However, the ASA has thrown “full fibre” ISPs a small bone by issuing some new advice.

ASA Advice to Part and Full Fibre ISPs

* As has always been the case, ads should not describe non-fibre services as “fibre“;

* Ads should not state or imply a service is the most technologically advanced on the market if it is a part-fibre service;

* Ads should make performance claims for fibre services (part- or full-) that are appropriate for the type of technology delivering that service, and should hold evidence to substantiate the specific claims made; and..

* Specifically, ads should refer to speed in a manner that is appropriate for the technology, including by having due regard to CAP’s new guidance on numerical speed claims (here).

The first point about it always being the case that ads “should not describe non-fibre services as fibre” is a bit confusing in itself because this seems to be a reference to technologies with no fibre in their diet at all, which still appears to leave FTTC style solutions free to use “fibre” terminology. Some would also argue that a lot of wireless and other technologies may actually have some fibre in their diet, such as on the capacity supply side.

In other words, the ASA appears to have decided that no fundamental changes are necessary. No doubt supporters of the big ISPs will rejoice, while pure “full fibre” providers will be despondent. The ASA’s decision is also a smack in the face to MPs and those who had been calling for the change. But as we’ve said already, it was probably already too late to change things (the damage has long since been done). The big ISP marketing departments won this battle years’ ago.

Today’s outcome was published as a footnote to the ASA’s review of service speeds in broadband advertising, which will force ISPs to adopt an average speed (here).

What do you think of the ASA's ruling?

  • Only FTTP/H ISPs should be able to promote as "fibre" (83%, 168 Votes)
  • It's fine for FTTC / Part Fibre ISPs to promote as "fibre" (16%, 32 Votes)
  • Undecided (1%, 3 Votes)

Total Voters: 203

UPDATE 10:11am

The following is a joint statement from Gigaclear, Hyperoptic and CityFibre.

Joint Statement from Fibre Optic ISPs.

Despite being outwardly portrayed as ‘good news’ for consumers with its upfront focus on transparency of broadband speeds, today’s announcement from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) deflects attention from a hugely damaging decision that fundamentally undermines the battle to secure Britain’s digital future.

By concluding that it is not materially misleading to describe broadband services that use copper wires from street cabinets into consumers’ homes as “fibre broadband”, the ASA has failed in its duty to protect what is undeniably in the consumers’ best interest – the transparency around the services they are being sold by technology providers.

In the last year, central and local government, the regulator, businesses and consumer groups have cemented their support for full fibre, recognising its critical importance to the UK economy in a digital age. This vision is unlocking billions of pounds in competitive infrastructure investment and it is imperative that everything is done to encourage its uptake by consumers with a move towards recognising full fibre as the substantially different product that it is.

Only yesterday, the Chancellor Phillip Hammond confirmed that, “Full-fibre is the gold standard for fast and reliable broadband“. Therefore, by allowing copper-reliant products to continue to masquerade as full-fibre, despite their clear and recognised inferiority in terms of speed and quality, consumers will continue to be ill-equipped to make an informed choice, fuelling mounting distrust in the telecoms market place.

As the ASA has failed to take the appropriate course of action, we intend to fight this decision and will work with the relevant industry, regulatory and government bodies until we have a satisfactory outcome.

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 X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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