Let's lay it on the line.
The broadband market can be complex. Often, consumers do not understand the terminology being thrown about willy-nilly. It's not their fault - because different broadband providers use the terms in different ways.
In particular, the term ‘fibre’ can be used to refer to very different things.
'Fibre' might mean real, 'full fibre' (where fibreoptic cables bring the broadband into your home, so you can enjoy speeds of up to 1GB). But it might also refer to 'part fibre', which means the fibre might bring the internet connection whizzing to your local exchange, but copper wires will bring it the last few metres into your home, so you'll only enjoy speeds of a few dozen megabits per second.
In practice, the difference in speeds and user-experience can be huge. As I sit here writing this in my new-build flat, I am fortunate to have real, 'full-fibre', and enjoy download speeds of up to 1GB through the ethernet cable, and I'm enjoying 300mbps even via my WiFi.
So, now I know what it's like, I would think twice before moving to a home with fibre mixed with copper (no offence). A mere 20-30mbps would mean my Netflix addiction would be at risk!
But given that these part-copper-part-fibre systems are allowed to be marketed as 'Fibre', without going into any more detail than that, it's very hard for the average consumer to tell what they are getting when they see those colourful, futuristic, flashy ads for 'fibre' broadband.
"Fibre", they proclaim, but is it REALLY?
You'll certainly want to check before you sign that 18 month contract!
A line in the sand
The challenge in this sector is that the ASA conducted research into consumer understanding into these claims back in 2016/17, and since then the ASA has been firmly of the view that it doesn't matter, or that consumers don't care.
A kind of what you don't know can't hurt you approach.
This was a controversial approach when it was adopted by the ASA, and an unusual one for the ASA to take, given that they're quite keen to intervene in very hands-on ways in other areas, like crypto, environmental and social media marketing.
Their approach was even subject to Judicial Review in 2018, although the courts came down on the side of the ASA.
Since then, the ASA's very firmly established position is that both full-fibre and part-fibre can be advertised and promoted simply as 'fibre'.
Whose line is it anyway?
Some people (ahem) think it's a baffling approach by a regulator that doesn't believe the average social media user is savvy enough to tell an obviously-commercial social media post from a hole in the wall. A regulator that requires the label 'AD' to be added social media posts by an influencer giving out VOUCHER CODES for money off their own autobiography or own-brand products, for fear that consumers don't know what they're looking at! A regulator that thinks these same consumers, nay even consumers who don't even have a social media account, will see an ad for "FIBRE BROADBAND" and instinctively understand whether they're getting proper fibre or semi-skimmed fibre, or are happy to live in blissful ignorance.
Now, it seems Ofcom might have serious reservations about the status quo, too. It has decided to reopen the issue.
It's a punchy move by Ofcom, given that the ASA has dug a fairly deep trench on this issue. It could put the two regulators at odds with one another.
Ofcom is now consulting on complementary guidance that providers should:
- Include a short description of the underlying technology of the network delivering the broadband service, on their websites and in contract information, using one or two terms such as ‘fibre’, ‘cable’, ‘full-fibre’, ‘copper’ or ‘part-fibre’.
- Use those terms consistently to describe the service.
- Only use the terms ‘fibre’ and ‘full-fibre’ when referring to fibre-to-the-premises networks.
- Provide an explanation of the terms used to describe the service, in a way that can be easily accessed by customers.
The proposals cover point-of-sale information on services available to consumers and contractual information.
Will it get a poor reception?
Ofcom emphasises that advertising (including online advertising on providers’ own websites) falls within the remit of the ASA.
At this stage, Ofcom has not included or undertaken any assessment of whether use of the word ‘fibre’ is misleading in either its research or its proposals.
However, if it concludes that it is misleading to describe part-fibre services as 'fibre' (without some kind of clarification), it could be the end of the line for CAP and the ASA's current approach... but if they won't budge, then the battle lines will be drawn.
Ofcom's consultation ends on 3 May 2023. Fetch the popcorn!
The way fixed broadband services are delivered is changing, with the coverage of new full-fibre networks increasing across the UK and co-existing alongside older networks. In that context, it is particularly important for broadband customers to have sufficient, useful and timely information to choose the right broadband service for them, and to take advantage of new full-fibre networks as these become available