The Advertising Standard Authority has been considering changes to how broadband services are advertised, focussing in particular on concerns from users about the ‘up to’ speeds used in advertising and other marketing communications, which often don’t reflect the real world speeds users receive after subscribing.
Over the last few years, service providers have been clambering to talk about their investment in ‘fibre’ or fibre-optic networks, the technology that will help us connect the UK to the next generation Internet. However, what does ‘fibre’ really mean? It’s a term that’s often misunderstood and sometimes mis-used.
The widespread use of the term ‘fibre’ to mean fast Internet connection means consumers are even more confused about the real investment that is needed in long term full-fibre solutions.
The term ‘fi-wi’ has been coined (meaning Fibre over wireless) to describe a solution where the core network is based on a fibre backbone, with users connected to these nodes over various wireless technologies. Similarly, we have the term ‘fibre to the cabinet’ or FTTC which means fibre being rolled out beyond the traditional distribution point of the telephone exchange, to a local street cabinet, which permits much faster broadband services to be provided to those living further from the telephone exchange. Only fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) solutions make use of this technology end-to-end.
Similarly, Virgin Media’s “fibre optic network” is often cited as a reference to the best technology available, even though this too is based on a fibre-coax hybrid, where the nearest fibre optic cable may well be miles from your property.
We support the investment being made both by mainstream companies like Virgin Media and BT as well as niche operators and we would not argue that all services should be delivered over end-to-end fibre networks today, however the way the term ‘fibre’ is used, means consumers do not often understand the wider issues involved and may consider that current investment achieves the long term aim of pushing the UK to the top of the league table for broadband in Europe.
“The key thing for me is a fibre future. The main thing for us to do, as Steve has said and certainly I support, is to make sure we continue deploying at speed, and at a very competitive cost, our fibre network.
I think that’s what our customers want, they want us to have the best fibre deployment footprint and they want that as quick as possible. Certainly that part of our strategy very much remains.”Olivia Garfield, (incoming CEO) Openreach
Whilst many will be glad to hear that BT think fibre is the future, it’s essential to point out that the term fibre is being used very subjectively here. BT plan to deploy a ‘fibre based’ connection to two-thirds of the country, but this heavily relies upon fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) which will make up the large majority of these ‘fibre’ connections. BT have previously said that full fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) will only be deployed in around 25% of cases (so about 16% of the country in total). Fibre-to-the-cabinet is distinctly a copper/fibre hybrid network which Garfield is keen to forget, unless of course she is talking about the directly comparable cable network of the competition.
ITPro: Virgin has been making strides in the fibre department, what do you make of their efforts?
Garfield: Virgin has been making strides? In what way?
ITPro: Well, in pushing out their 100Mbps connections…
Garfield: Virgin have got a very good cable network but they haven’t made any strides in fibre.
The industry is great at confusing the consumer by changing the meaning of words to describe things in as many ways as possible. This problem is not in any way limited to any one company.
Thinking beyond fibre, another example is O2′s previous multiple definitions of the term ‘unlimited’ in use at the same time. This eventually ends up with these terms being next to meaningless marketing gumpf.
No doubt providers of hybrid-fibre networks will continue to market their services with the word ‘fibre’ for years to come, until full-fibre connections become more popular, when the advertising regulator may start to question the meaning of the word in the same way as it has started cracking down on the term ‘unlimited’ in relation to broadband . We do understand that it’s difficult to make Internet access sound exciting, but using terms in such ways can lead to more consumer confusion.
Arguably, we are guilty of using the term ‘fibre broadband‘ ourselves, but we hope our attempt to explain the terminology will help to educate users about the different technologies out there.