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Cityfibre Secure Judicial Review of “Misleading” Fibre Broadband Ads

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018 (12:43 pm) - Score 1,987
virgin media coaxial copper cable advertised as fibre optic

The UK High Court has today granted Cityfibre permission to proceed with its Judicial Review of the Advertising Standards Authority’s decision regarding the use of “fibre” terminology in broadband ISP advertising, which the operator has often accused of being “misleading” for consumers.

The debate over what should and should not be considered “fibre broadband” in UK advertising has been going on since 2008, after the ASA allowed so called slower “hybrid fibre” or “part fibre” services (e.g. FTTC, G.fast or HFC DOCSIS networks that combine fibre with slower metallic copper or aluminium cables) to use the same wording as pure “full fibre” (FTTH/P) ISPs that take the optical fibre all the way to your home or office.

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. Experiences do vary, depending upon the network setup and length of metallic cable, but generally there’s a big difference (Will the real fibre optic service please stand up?).

In the past, few paid attention to this debate, which is partly because FTTP/H networks were tiny, but today operators are in a race to deploy such services out to millions of UK premises (see our summary). As such it has become increasingly important for ISPs to be able to highlight the advantages of a pure fibre line vs a hybrid fibre one. This is naturally made more difficult when your part fibre rivals are allowed to use the same terminology.

Last year the ASA finally, under a lot of pressure, agreed to review the situation but in the end they only recommended minor tweaks (here). In its conclusion the ASA claimed that “fibre” was not one of the priorities identified by consumers when choosing a package; that consumers did not notice “fibre” claims in ads and that they saw it as a shorthand buzzword to describe modern fast broadband.

Overall consumers told the ASA that they did not believe they would change their previous decisions, even after the differences between those services and broadband services that use fibre optic cables all the way to the home were explained to them.

Naturally Cityfibre, which has built multiple Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) networks across the UK, disagreed and argued the “research and logic that lead to the [ASA’s] decision was fundamentally flawed” and that it encourages slower hybrid fibre ISPs to “continue to mislead consumers.” In response the operator began seeking a Judicial Review against such advertising and the High Court has today allowed them to proceed.

Greg Mesch, Founder and CEO of CityFibre, said:

“The High Court is seeing sense where the ASA failed to: this is the right decision for consumers and our economy. CityFibre challenged the ASA’s decision because consumers must not be misled into thinking they can get full-fibre benefits on a copper broadband network – they can’t: copper is dead.

It is now time to sort out these advertising rules once and for all, and for the Government and industry to get behind the nationwide broadband targets set by the Chancellor. Companies are investing billions because of the transformative connectivity full fibre brings; the Court has a one-off chance to step in and make a difference for consumers before the mis-selling of broadband becomes the next PPI-style scandal.”

At the hearing, Cityfibre’s representatives argued that there were “serious limitations in the methodology the ASA used in research it says justifies its decision, and that the findings they presented actually supported the view that the use of ‘fibre’ was misleading for consumers.”

Summary of Cityfibre’s Claims:

* The methodology did not qualify the ASA to make generalisations or to extrapolate its findings to the wider population.
* The demographic selection was not representative and did not take proper account of socio-economic group A.
* The ASA’s findings in fact supportive of the view that the indiscriminate and current widespread use of the word fibre is misleading –
—- “When viewing full-fibre ads, only a minority of participants immediately understood that full-fibre providers offered something different.”
—- And even after the difference between full and part fibre was explained, two-thirds of respondents were still unable to differentiate between full and part-fibre ads.

The ASA will now have 35 days to prepare their counter case, which should prove to be an incredibly interesting one due to the inherent clash of technology and marketing. Nevertheless, win or lose, it will remain very difficult to unpick something that has long since become established in the consumer subconscious, where the meaning of “fibre” has been diluted over years of use (or misuse) by slower hybrid (part) fibre services.

Furthermore if Cityfibre wins then this could conceivably place a question mark over Gigabit capable Fibre-to-the-Building (FTTB) providers, such as Hyperoptic, where only a little bit of the overall connection is still technically copper (i.e. cabling inside the building itself). Even Openreach has some slower FTTB solutions that use VDSL2 technology (aka FTT-Basement). France has already taken a very tough line on this (here).

As a side note, ISPreview.co.uk ran a snap poll of 200+ respondents when the ASA announced their decision last year and 83% agreed that only FTTH/P ISPs should be able to use “fibre broadband” in advertising. Cityfibre’s action has also received wide support from other full fibre ISPs, such as Gigaclear and Vodafone etc.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he is also the founder of ISPreview since 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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17 Responses
  1. A Builder

    Long overdue.

    The fudging of the terminology has long made people power less effective.

    Interesting to see how one of the alliance of Alt Nets will deal with their service which is properly 1G capable but in some cases uses FTTB (being Fibre to the Basement and then ethernet).

  2. Ryan BT

    Further confuse the already confusing broadband market. Consumers are used to discussing these products in these terms. They don’t really care what part or full fibre is. The people that do represent less than 1% of the population probably. Higher proportion among visitors and commenters on this site. Again consumers only care that their Netflix isn’t buffering or that they don’t have to listen to their kids screaming about a slow gaming connection or lag. Toys and prams by city fibre.

    • A_Builder

      @Ryan BT

      How does pulling apart

      -fibre
      -hybrid fibre

      make things more confusing?

      I agree all most consumers care about is ‘does it work to my expectation’ and don’t care about technology.

      But if people have an expectation of what they require they need to have a means to drill down to find if it is fulfillable.

      The bit where it does change is for the Home Office user and SME’s who don’t have technical backgrounds and may have considerable requirements.

    • AndyC

      Ryan so you would be happy to get a 80meg “Fibre” connection that can get lets say… 30meg and be happy that your neighbour gets a “fibre” connection on the excact same package and paying the exact same price as you yet gets a full 80meg because they have a a “fibre” that go’s to the house where as yours only go’s to the local cab??? I think you would spit your dummy out the pram as well.

      Both are advertised as fibre yet one is vastly superior to the other.

      Im not the most tech savey person here and yet even i can see the difference if they where forced to call there packages what they are.

    • NGA for all

      The problem here is that nomenclature overall is a mess and this ‘review’ is trying to isolate just one aspect.

      Superfast- FTTC, Fibre based, part fibre up to 80Mbps, >24mbps – all without referencing the peak hour bandwidth allocations, packet loss, jitter and delay budgets.

      Gigabit, gigabit capable, symmetric, full fibre – terminated with a wireless hub, or 66Ghz radio, rarely gigabit, no reference to peak hour bandwidth allocations, packet loss, jitter and delay budgets.

      A full fibre connection needs to recognised as such, but this is part of a wider nomenclature problem that a judge if minded will kick back to industry and Ofcom to resolve.

  3. Joe

    While I agree on the issue they have JR is generally a waste of time and money

  4. Meadmodj

    How about their web site. Promotes how they are creating a Full Fibre network for the UK, that copper is dead and then directs residential users to Vodafone FTTC offerings. Isn’t that misrepresentation?

    • un4h731x0rp3r0m

      Where on their site does it do that?

    • graycoll

      I think there are only referring res customers to register an interest in the pilot areas where CityFibre and Vodafone are partnering up, i.e. Milton Keynes, Aberdeen, Peterborough, Coventry, Edinburgh, Huddersfield and Stirling.

    • un4h731x0rp3r0m

      Yep i can not find any claims about them doing a “Full Fibre network for the UK, or that FTTC from vodaphone is any part of that mission.

    • occasionally factual

      If you live in the pilot area and do register an interest, Vodafone will call you and try to sell you their current products. I politely said I was only interested in FTTP and the call ended with a quick “Oh well we’ll get back to you when that is available”.

    • Clifford

      “Vodafone will call you…”

      Just been through their enquiry pages and for residential you have 2 options register with vodafone (for standard and future connections) which takes you to vodafones website and register for updates about full fibre with cityfibre.

      If you pick the cityfibre option it goes on to ask for an physical home address and email address but does not ask for a phone number so how they phoned you must be witch craft.

      If you picked the vodafone option i would had thought the fact you were then on vodafones website would be some resemblance of a clue who you are giving your phone number and other details to and permission to use.

  5. Jerry

    In my opinion. The majority of consumers want what they pay for regardless of the name of the package.

    I am all for the transparency of companies and think that the better informed the consumer is the better choices they can make.

    It would not be fair for a company to mislead a consumer and sell them a product they neither need or want.

  6. Steve B

    As a consumer I wrote to the ASA years ago about Openreaches Faux Fibre. I commented that dial up could be called fibre as it was likely to go through fibre somewhere. They just passed the buck and said I should contact some other organizations as it was nothing to do with them.

    Yes I do have FTTP at home now thanks to forward thinking companies like Gigaclear.

    Always people talk about download speeds, the biggest saver in my time as a publisher of content is upload (home YouTube videos), which Faux Fibre does not give you.

    • FibreFred

      “I commented that dial up could be called fibre as it was likely to go through fibre somewhere”

      Errr no 🙂

  7. James Blessing

    A random thought on the law of unintended consequences…

    “Hybrid petrol cars are better for the environment than just normal petrol cars, therefore hybrid fibre must be better than just normal fibre”

    “Sometimes the most sadistic thing the DM can do to is to let the players have their own way.” DM of the Rings – http://shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?cat=14

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