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Pure fibre broadband network builder CityFibre is seeking a judicial review to challenge the Advertising Standards Authority over its decision in November 2017 to allow fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) broadband service providers to advertise their products simply as fibre.
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At the heart of CityFibre’s argument is the fact that fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) broadband services, which rely on copper wiring to bridge the last mile between cabinet and premises – and which, thanks to the historic market dominance of BT and Openreach, make up a substantial tranche of the UK’s broadband lines – offer substantially slower broadband connections than the more desirable fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) or full-fibre services that are now being rolled out on a much larger scale.
CityFibre – which is preparing to sell FTTP services to consumers through partner Vodafone for the first time later this year – believes that by continuing to allow broadband products delivered over copper to be advertised and sold as fibre, the ASA is “perpetuating a recognised issue of industry confusing and misinforming consumers”.
It will argue that because the government now argues that major private investment in full fibre is critical to the UK’s productivity and economic future, the time has come to explicitly distinguish between the two.
“The time has come to do away with ‘fake fibre’,” said CityFibre chief executive Greg Mesch. “The ASA’s short-sighted decision to allow yesterday’s copper-based infrastructure to masquerade as the future-proof full-fibre networks of tomorrow is a clear failure in its duty. It has failed to ensure honest and truthful broadband advertising, it has failed to enable consumers to make informed choices, and it has failed to support a national infrastructure project critical to our success in a digital age.”
In its decision last November, the ASA put forward research it had commissioned claiming that fibre was not a consumer priority, that consumers did not notice fibre claims in ads and usually thought it was just a buzzword to describe faster services. The research also purported to show that consumers tended not to believe they would change their buying decisions when the difference between FTTC and FTTP was made clear to them.
CityFibre said that, on the contrary, the rapidly increasing number of people who can access FTTP are now at risk of being unable to make an informed decision. Maximising consumer take-up will be critical to the success of FTTP deployments, it said, and allowing consumer ISPs to use the word fibre to describe FTTC risked damaging take-up of FTTP.
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CityFibre has filed for a review on the basis that the research and logic that led to the ASA’s decision were fundamentally flawed, and many of its findings contradicted independent research conducted by broadband comparison sites and other bodies.
“Operators such as CityFibre are busy building the gigabit-capable networks that UK consumers and businesses will need for the future, but without clear and transparent advertising to guide their purchasing decisions, millions of consumers risk being conned into staying on inferior copper-based broadband services,” said Mesch. “The first step to righting this consumer wrong is for the ASA to reverse its decision, which perpetuates the ‘fake fibre’ lie.”
Matthew Hare, chief executive of rural full-fibre supplier Gigaclear, agreed that without the knowledge of how FTTP is differentiated from FTTC, consumers are “being blinded” to the capabilities of their services.
“As CityFibre cites, the research we undertook in 2017 clearly showed that consumers typically felt it was misleading to describe part fibre networks as ‘fibre’ because it impedes their ability to differentiate between the different capabilities of different technologies,” he said. “Yet no action has been taken by the ASA to rectify this.
“As a nation, we lag far behind the majority of Europe in relation to full fibre. Currently, full fibre is only available to one million properties in the UK. The government has communicated the importance of full-fibre networks for our economic future. Now the telecoms industry and the ASA need to respond. It’s time to educate consumers in a clear and concise way, to ensure they have the knowledge to choose the service they want.”