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Two thirds 'misled' by fibre broadband advertising, experts compare situation to horsemeat scandal

Thursday, April 21st 2016 by Cable.co.uk

Research by Cable.co.uk has revealed that two thirds of fibre broadband customers on BT's Openreach network – which services around 80% of the UK's total broadband customer base – are unaware their so-called 'fibre' service arrives at their home through a standard copper telephone line.

This is important, because the speeds available over copper reduce drastically over distance, severely limiting both current speeds and future upgradability.

Experts, speaking to Cable.co.uk, labeled the way the term ‘fibre broadband’ is widely used in the UK ‘misleading’ and compared the situation to the horsemeat scandal.

This comes just days after the British Infrastructure Group (BIG), a cross-party group of MPs led by Grant Shapps, demanded an end to what it described as a “miss-selling” scandal potentially bigger than PPI and Volkswagen's emissions tests.

'When you buy beef, you should get beef'

Benoit Felten, who spent more than a decade as consulting director for leading French and Belgian telecoms firms, said the misleading advertising of fibre broadband is reminiscent of the way consumers were misled by the 2013 horsemeat scandal, where it was discovered that products labelled as beef actually contained horse meat.

Mr Felten, currently chief research officer at telecoms analytics firm Diffraction Analysis, said companies advertising 'fibre' broadband should be forced to make it clear if someone's connection will include copper, something that can potentially affect the speeds they get.

“It’s time for the marketers to clarify and sell what they advertise," said Mr Felten.

“There’s a reason we don’t have ‘meat’ on food labels instead of 'beef' or 'pork'. There’s also a reason why horse meat lasagne was a big scandal in Europe: it’s not that they were improper for consumption, it’s that when you buy beef, you should get beef.”

Is the actual cable delivering broadband into your home...?

Broadband expert Benoit Felten thinks the UK should follow France in forcing providers to advertise fibre more accurately.

'Unlikely to mislead' says the ASA

The debate on whether the term 'fibre' is good enough as a catch-all description of fibre-based broadband isn't a new one.

In November 2014, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) chose not to uphold a complaint that BT referred to its Infinity product as “fibre optic”, which could mislead customers into thinking it was a fibre to the home (FTTH), rather than a fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) connection.

The watchdog said that consumers looking at fibre packages would be more interested in the improved speed and performance of it compared to ADSL (standard broadband), and the cost, rather than the “most technologically advanced fibre optic product available at any cost”.

“We therefore considered the use of the term ‘fibre optic’ to denote a broadband connection which primarily comprised fibre optic cable whilst including non-fibre optic cable as a small proportion of the overall connection was unlikely to mislead the average consumer,” said the ASA.

Yet most do not know what they're getting

Cable.co.uk surveyed 1,000 fibre broadband customers receiving their service from a provider operating on BT's Openreach network. Providers on Openreach include BT, TalkTalk, Sky and Plusnet (as well as many smaller providers) but not Virgin Media, which operates on its own fibre-coaxial (cable) network. Though Virgin Media's network is also part-copper it uses a somewhat different technology that negates much of the drop in speed over distance.

Two thirds (67.7%) believe the cable bringing their internet service into their home is fibre optic, with just 9.3% correctly answering that the cable is a standard copper telephone line.

Meanwhile, one in five respondents (21.6%) confessed to not knowing what form the cabling takes, and just 1.4% gave their answer as 'something else'.

Is the actual cable delivering broadband into your home...?

Data gathered from Cable.co.uk survey of 1,000 fibre broadband users on the Openreach network asked 'What is the actual cable bringing internet into your home made from, as best you understand?'

Current network an 'interim solution' says BT insider

Mike Kiely spent 22 years at BT, including as a senior manager working on national projects including the launch of its broadband service, then went on to advise the government on the rural broadband project. He said consumers within 1,000m of a fibre cabinet will get a good service, with no disturbance to their home or garden, making it easy for those customers to benefit from future upgrades.

Speaking exclusively to Cable.co.uk, he said: “Comparatively speaking [fibre only as far as the cabinet] is cheap to deliver – £26,000 per cabinet was reported by BT to the Culture, Media and Sport inquiry for BDUK, so that is no more than £130 per customer for 200 users, for example."

But fibre-to-the-cabinet leaves “gaps”, partly because of the problems that arise when signals degrade on copper over longer distances.

"Fibre-to-the-cabinet serves its purpose but it is an interim solution, particularly in rural areas. Fibre to the premises (FTTP) is more labour intensive but has proven cheaper to do for small hamlets of 30-40 homes where it makes no sense to spend money on power but make the transition from copper to fibre.”

So if it’s cheaper to do FTTP for small rural hamlets, why is Openreach not doing it?

In 2009, BT announced Openreach would connect 25% of UK premises to FTTP by 2012. That target has since been dropped, with the telecoms giant arguing that it is less relevant because of improvements to the headline speeds that can be reached using fibre to the cabinet.

It now trumpets its G.fast technology, which uses a combination of fibre cables and copper wires to deliver speeds up to 330Mbps.

Supporters argue that while FTTH is the ideal solution to future broadband needs, copper has more to give and G.fast is the key to giving faster speeds without the financial outlay required by fibre to the home. But Mr Kiely says: “Particularly in rural areas even G.Fast is unlikely to make a sufficient contribution.”

'A bugbear' for true fibre network providers, says INCA

Malcolm Corbett, CEO of the Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA), said the issue of the use of the word ‘fibre’ to cover a vast array of technically different connections was a “bugbear” for ISPs who actually provide fibre to the home, also called fibre to the premises.

He told Cable.co.uk: “I think it’s time we did something in the UK about the misleading advertising of ‘fibre broadband’ for products that are actually fibre to a cabinet and copper to the premises.

“Ofcom have made statements about wanting to see clarity and accuracy over broadband products for consumers and this is an area that warrants action. If the French can do it, why can’t we?”

Is the actual cable delivering broadband into your home...?

France is the latest European country to set new rules over the use of the word 'fibre' in broadband adverts

Should we be more like the French?

At the end of March, the French government set new rules for the use of the word 'fibre' in sales and marketing material used by providers.

The change, which comes into force on 1 June for advertising material and in March next year for commercial documents, requires providers to include upload as well as download speeds and has to clearly state if a connection does not use fibre all the way into the home.

Mr Felten said the UK should take steps to make sure consumers aren't under the impression they have a complete fibre connection if part of it still relies on the nation's copper network.

“I think cable and FTTC providers have had it way too easy on this particular count in the past, mostly because advertising and competition authorities weren’t savvy enough to understand the differences between the different networking solutions."

To help customers understand exactly what they can expect to get, he said the UK should follow France's approach, making it clear how far the 'fibre' actually goes.

Why the last mile matters – Analysis by Cable.co.uk telecoms expert Dan Howdle

This is not just about what use of the term ‘fibre broadband’ represents when applied to part-fibre networks. It's also about what this misinterpretation means for the future fortunes of those living distantly from their nearest cabinet – a very great deal of us.

The decision to lay fibre cabling as far as the cabinet, but not as far as the houses themselves was made over a decade ago. At the time it was undoubtedly the most economical decision. Few at the time will have foreseen the exponential increase in the take-up of streaming TV services or the rapid decline of disc-based media.

Our data needs, the UK's 'broadband burden' is not a static thing. It grows every day. We are already at a stage where if everyone decided to enjoy their content via video streaming services such as Netflix, the existing infrastructure would not be able to cope.

And demand will only increase as more and more of us run our social, working and entertainment lives digitally. Copper cables cannot be a part of this equation.

Broadband speeds over copper cabling drop over distance. As this graph from Ofcom demonstrates, not over miles, but over metres, not a steady decline, but a cliff. When you increase the ceiling at the cabinet (as BT has recently done in raising its basic fibre speed from 38Mbps to 52Mbps), you marginally improve the fortunes of those living distantly from the cabinet, but mainly you steepen the cliff.

Are consumers being conned into thinking they’ve got fibre broadband

Data courtesy of Ofcom

For those who can get it, fibre broadband via Openreach is providing the UK with enough juice to service the needs of the majority. But for how long? Subscriptions to internet-streamed TV services, for example, are set to triple by 2019.

It's a future we're married to, for good or bad. Not only streaming TV, but also education and entertainment. Our increasingly connected homes, our endless ‘app’ updates, the so-called 'internet of things'.

The copper ‘last mile’ isn’t just an issue of misleading terminology used to sell a product to an unwitting general public, but an issue which, within the next decade, stands to afflict the fundamental vitality of our digital lives.

Reporting by Phil Wilkinson-Jones, Ellen Branagh, Hannah Langston. Research conducted by OnePoll.

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