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.

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9 Responses

  1. cyberdoyle on 04 Apr 2011

    thanks for making it all a bit clearer for people. Dial up is fed with fibre in the exchange, but that doesn’t make it fibre broadband. My wifi is fed with fibre via a microwave link, but that isn’t fibre broadband either. The only service worthy of the name is fibre to the home. You are quite right, and virgin and BT should stop calling it fibre. Nor should they use up to speeds, as hardly anyone can get them, and they shouldn’t use unlimited and then put ‘subject to’ in small print. Time for a bit of honesty, and then it will become obvious to the politicians that the telcos are running rings round them.

  2. Sean on 04 Apr 2011

    I am fed up with all these claims about speeds and fibre. You are right that FTTC is only part fibre. It is about time for some clarity for consumers. Also wireless solutions are now faster and quicker to install and in fact are a better solution than fibre to the home which is so far off. We can have this fast Broadband now.

  3. Andrue on 05 Apr 2011

    @cyber:A surprisingly good comment so congrats on that. I do however have to take issue on one point.

    “Nor should they use up to speeds, as hardly anyone can get them”

    There are only two ways you can fail to get to a maximum value. One is to get nothing at all. The other is to exceed it. As an example:Vehicles have been known to travel on British roads at speeds up to 172mph ( ).

    In what way is that an incorrect use of the phrase ‘up to’?

  4. Diane on 06 Apr 2011

    The article is quite wrong where it states the fibre would be “miles from the customer” on the Virgin Media cable network. This isn’t the case. The reason is this: Fibre goes to the VM street cabs which are segmented closer to each subscriber. The distance between home and cab is a few hundred meters – not miles as you incorrectly state. That short distance to the Virgin Media customer is a very short run of high-bandwidth RG6 co-ax cable. This is very different to BT telephony twisted copper, and together with the shorter run, means Virgin can reach speeds over 100mb. 200mb is being tested but the manufacturers of the equipment have been able to reach speeds approaching 1gb. This is why VM doesn’t intend to upgrade the shorter last mile from street cab to home with fibre as there really is no need yet. (Apart from possibly new builds and trial areas in Cornwall and Woolhampton using DPON (Docsis Over Passive Optical Network) strung on poles for areas off-network. VM can currently get much more mileage out of HFC in existing areas .. than BT could ever hope to using their FTTC “infinity” system.

    • Pud Puller on 31 Aug 2014

      VM doesn’t have fibre in YOUR local street cab they have fibre in the huge street cab that services your neighbourhood and this could be miles from your house.
      the local cab just has coax in it

  5. seb on 06 Apr 2011

    @Diane – The ‘miles’ reference came directly from a Virgin Media engineer. We’re also not suggesting VM should be using FTTH.. we’re just not sure that as a percentage of the circuit, that is any more fibre than BT.. the point we are making is not a Virgin or BT one but a general industry one. When new cables are being laid, consumers don’t understand that in the long term FTTH is likely to be a better investment. VM were far behind a decade ago and are really setting the standard now.. our concern is about consumer confusion generally.

  6. dustofnations on 06 Apr 2011

    @Diane – The comment you have left seems to have insider information that sounds awfully like VM PR to me. Would you disclose any potential conflicts of interest in the name of transparency and balance?

    @seb – I think the obsession with fibre has turned it into a fairly useless buzz-word. Most people don’t seem to have the requisite technical knowledge to make a sensible judgement about what it means, what it is capable of, and that calling something “fibre” when it involves hundreds of metres of copper is somewhere south of misleading (dishonest in my view).

    I think there should be a black-and-white distinction, if you cannot maintain the maximal speed of the fastest stated medium over the whole line (i.e. the highest speed the fibre segment could carry in its own right), then you cannot call it that. So in the case of FTTC it most certainly isn’t a fibre service, because single stranded fibre can easily carry 1Gbps, but no copper technology over hundreds of metres can. The same applies to VM’s DOCSIS.

    If there was a hypothetical service where a small segment was copper, but it could still push to the consumer at the same speed as the fibre segment was capable of – then I think it would be acceptable to call it “fibre”.

    Ultimately it is about providing a high-speed

  7. James on 16 Apr 2011

    While there at it, they should also tell ISP’s to drop these following terms “Unlimited” and “Truly Unlimited”, since both terms and misleading.

  8. Shailesh on 16 Jun 2011

    Being a recipient of a sub-standard service from a big name provider. I do thing all the providers are running a big con. By saying Up to and Unlimited, they can get away with offering you anything without any comeback. In any other sector / industry you would not get away with this. The only way this can be resolved, is forcing all providers to bill according to the speeds delivered per customer. This would force providers to ensure a good service if they want to increase revenues. Ultimately, you pay for what you get, which is a fairer system.

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