ASA UK Finally Opens Investigation into "Fibre Broadband" Advertising by ISPs - ISPreview UK
Fans of accurate definitions may be pleased to note that the Advertising Standards Authority has finally agreed to review the often confusing way in which ISPs promote “fibre broadband” packages. This can be applied to both slower hybrid fibre (FTTC) and ultrafast full fibre optic (FTTH/P) services.

Last month Matt Warman MP described broadband providers as being “complicit in fraud” for the way in which they advertise broadband speeds and “fibre” connections, which often aren’t truly fibre optic (here). Since then the Government’s Digital Minister, Matthew Hancock, has also joined the fun and said, “Adverts should be clear, and if it’s fibre, it should say fibre. If it’s not, it should not.” Finally!

Matt Warman, Government MP, 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.”
The ASA has somewhat controversially allowed hybrid-fibre broadband products to be promoted as “fibre optic” or “fibre broadband” since all the way back in 2008, which is despite the fact that the dominant Fibre-to-the-Cabinet (FTTC) and most EuroDOCSIS based Virgin Media cable connections require a mix of both copper (some lines also use aluminium) and optical fibre cable. It’s a similar story for the new service too.

The copper element can easily suffer from electrical interference and signal degradation, which tends to get worse over distance. This is a significant performance limitation on such connections, which is why some FTTC lines struggle to deliver even ADSL speeds and yet others can push near to the top rate of 80Mbps. We covered all of this in more detail via our article – Will the Real Fibre Optic Broadband Service Please Stand Up.

In fairness, this is far less of a problem on Virgin Media’s short runs of thick copper coaxial cables than the long thin twisted pair copper lines in Openreach’s (BT) FTTC setup. However a pure fibre optic line (FTTH/P) suffers no such interference and is more limited by capacity supply than the cable itself, hence why FTTH/P connections are able to deliver symmetrical multi-Gigabit speeds over long distances.

The ASA’s original 2008 ruling stems from a similar complaint against Virgin Media. At the time the ASA took the view that the coax element of Virgin’s network was only a small part of their fibre optic backhaul and thus the ISP was deemed to have been justified in describing their service as “fibre optic“, even though this sort of promotional flexibility could in theory also be applied to everything from ADSL to Wireless networks and indeed it often has (“Fibre over Wireless” and “Air Fibre” etc.).

Mind you the market of 2008 was also a very different one from today and rival FTTP/H services, particularly in the domestic connectivity space, simply didn’t exist to any noticeable degree. Today around 1 million premises are already covered by pure fibre technology and this will rise to 4-6 million within the next 3 years. As FTTP/H coverage expands then the desire to clean-up these definitions has returned.

ASA Statement

Following our research on broadband speed, our sister body CAP is currently considering how best to tighten standards on speed claims in ads with an announcement expected in the next few weeks.

We are also aware of evolving concerns about the advertising of ‘fibre’ broadband services. The term ‘fibre’ is currently used in advertising to describe both part-fibre and full-fibre broadband services.

The UK Government’s recently published Digital Strategy made clear its commitment to invest in full-fibre broadband infrastructure, which is likely to make those services available to significantly more people, and also made clear its view that the term ‘fibre’ should only be used to describe full-fibre broadband services. A recent debate in Parliament saw those MPs who participated also expressing their concerns about the use of the term ‘fibre’ to describe part-fibre broadband services.

In response to that context and those concerns, we are now scoping a review of how we interpret the Advertising Codes when judging the use of the term ‘fibre’ to describe broadband services. In particular, we will be considering whether the use of that term is likely to cause people to be materially misled. Our work has already begun and we will provide an update with more information by the summer.
The situation is interesting, particularly given the ASA’s seemingly unwavering stance on this subject, which many of us have repeatedly tried and failed to get overturned. However the ASA’s historic and steadfast refusal to adjust their approach also creates another problem.

Even if the definitions were to be changed tomorrow then it would come after years of injecting “fibre” into the consumer subconscious, which many have long since associated with slower broadband connections than intended. As a result changing it now may not have the full impact because the damage has arguably already been done.

We should point out that the ASA has continued to resist any change to their original stance on “fibre” advertising. In fact as recently as July 2016 they were still flatly rejecting calls for a review (here).

ASA Statement from July 2016:

In light of the lack of any significant change in the availability and uptake of FTTP in the UK since the ASA Council’s previous ruling, we consider that there is little merit in continuing with a formal investigation to review the issue again, when it is very likely that Council will reach the same conclusion. In essence, we consider that the use of ‘fibre-optic’ to refer to a FTTC service is unlikely to mislead, as consumers are likely to expect a ‘fibre-optic’ service to deliver faster speeds than an a standard ADSL service.
Any change now could be a touch embarrassing for the national advertising watchdog but it would stave off some angry Government politicians with a bandwagon of MPs in tow. Mind you they wouldn’t be alone as some countries, such as France, have also had to adopt similar changes (here).

The situation in France does however raise a complicated question for the ASA since some Fibre-to-the-Building (FTTB) networks, such as those supplied by Hyperoptic, are also able to deliver Gigabit speeds and that’s despite often needing a few final metres of copper network cable inside the building itself. Similarly Virgin Media’s future DOCSIS 3.1 upgrade may also be able to deliver Gigabit speeds over their existing network.