Millions of UK broadband customers are being mislead by their ISPs

Getting high-speed, fibre optic broadband services in the UK is no easy feat. Countless reports show that Britain lags behind other countries when it comes to connected infrastructure and speed, and there’s little sign of improvement on the horizon.

Millions of UK broadband customers are being mislead by their ISPs

However, despite the clear challenges of the UK market, broadband advertisements paint a very different picture. Many of the country’s biggest internet service providers use the term “fibre” in their marketing campaigns to push the idea of providing a speedy service, but few are actually able to deliver on the pledges they make when it comes to speed and availability.

That’s at least the claim of network provider CityFibre, which recently commissioned a survey of 3,400 broadband customers to find out their satisfaction with home broadband.

As a result of the survey, CityFibre believes that millions of UK broadband customers are being misled by what is labelled as “full-fibre” services that are, in fact, heavily reliant on legacy copper cables. It holds the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to blame due to being “backwards-looking” and failing to crack down on the use of the term.

Currently, the ASA doesn’t offer a clear definition of what “fibre” means, and CityFibre says this is confusing customers.

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Copper cables are still common throughout the UK, but that’s not what many citizens feel is the case. 65% of respondents said they had upgraded from copper to a “full-fibre service”, while 24% said they had purchased full-fibre to the premises (FTTP). In reality, just 3% of the UK actually has access to what is deemed as FTTP.

At the time of the report, CityFibre contacted Sky, BT, Virgin Media, TalkTalk, Vodafone, EE and the Post Office, all of which were considered to be misleading customers with broadband terms. When approached for clarification by Alphr, only the Post Office gave confirmation that it had received the report and was looking at the recommendations. Virgin Media simply told us that the company uses the term “superfast” instead of fibre.

Of course, this isn’t just a problem affecting consumers – small businesses and large organisations are also falling victim to misleading broadband adverts.


How misleading broadband is killing economic development

Darren Kilburn, principal consultant of policy at independent telecoms advisory firm FarrPoint, says misleading broadband advertisements have become commonplace over the last few years. He argues that this is a much bigger issue than just wording – the UK’s economic development could be put in jeopardy.

“When a new advert hits the streets showing clearly a co-axial cable under a heading including the word ‘fibre’, we should all know there is a problem,” says Kilburn. “Except perhaps this is not the problem CityFibre and the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) will lock horns over – should CityFibre’s complaint actually make it into a courtroom.

“The real problem, of which fibre advertising is but a part, is the shocking acceptance of the ‘less than’ service currently delivered by our broadband providers. This less speed, less reliability and less satisfaction approach to broadband has a knock-on impact not only to businesses but also on social inclusion and wider economic development.”

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While broadband providers are selling next-generation services at affordable prices, they’re failing to deliver on speed. As Kilburn puts it, customers are increasingly finding themselves paying more for essentially the same services they have enjoyed for years.

“Customers are paying more to hit a higher minimum standard”

“Customers are paying more to hit a higher minimum standard; standards that are advertised in the range at lower price points, but are not consistently met,” he explains. “This stymies innovation, it slows progress and it inflates the retail value of the service which maintains higher prices for lower grade services”.

ISPs have a responsibility to educate

The problem has largely been blamed on a lack of transparency, especially when it comes to educating organisations on what fibre technology actually offers and its availability throughout the country.

Ofcom has previously attempted to crack down on those companies trying to mislead customers. In the past, ISPs were allowed to advertise their fastest speeds on billboards and TV promos, even if they could only be accessed by 10% of the customer base. Following a ruling by the regulator in November, this threshold was raised to 50% of customers, forcing many to advertise average speeds instead of fastest.

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“We previously saw Ofcom take a hard-line stance on how broadband speeds are advertised. We must now take steps to ensure that organisations have a better understanding of what fibre technology is,” says Evan Dixon, CEO of European broadband retail at Viasat.

“Fibre has become almost shorthand for high-speed broadband, which has essentially blinded us to other ways of delivering internet – committing the UK fully to terrestrial delivered internet services.”


What needs to happen next?

Gareth Jones, co-founder of startup community Town Square Spaces, believes that regulatory bodies need to do more to ensure internet service providers are clear about the services they’re selling and that consumers aren’t tricked into buying services that don’t do the job.

“Right now we need to recognise that businesses which operate in future industries require fibre to the premises,” says Jones. “Copper might be good enough for shopping on Amazon or watching lower res Netflix, but it isn’t good enough for 2018 and beyond.

“Most broadband users don’t appreciate that when they’re buying fibre, they’re actually getting copper. ISPs should be under more pressure to make this clear, even if it confuses the messaging – so long as it encourages further investment in true fibre connectivity,” he adds.

“Copper might be good enough for shopping on Amazon, but it isn’t good enough for 2018”

“More and more people choose to work from home, and more and more businesses in the information, creative and financial industries require the quickest and most stable connection. In South Korea, they wouldn’t tolerate the service we have received over the last two decades. It’s time we raised our expectations in the UK.”

The problem goes beyond false advertising. Connectivity is the lifeblood of organisations today, and unless ISPs are delivering on their promises, these businesses risk ploughing substantial investment into technology that is undeliverable.

Ofcom seems to be waking up to this problem, and only time will tell whether this will improve transparency, but cooperation between ISPs, government bodies and regulators is paramount.

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