Broadband as we know it is changing. As we consume more and more data, copper based broadband is increasingly unfit for purpose and is a fading technology which is being “switched off” in many countries. Full fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) broadband is now considered globally as the gold standard of connectivity.
Consumers look to ‘fibre’ for speed and reliability, yet many in Ireland are still unclear about what they are getting when they order a ‘fibre’ broadband service. In 2018, SIRO commissioned Kantar Millward Brown (KMB) to conduct market research investigating, amongst other things, consumer perception and understanding of the term ‘fibre’ in broadband marketing. This research found that over half of respondents were confused by the different uses of the term ‘fibre’ (e.g. ‘fibre-powered’, ‘fibre broadband’, ‘100% fibre’ etc.) in marketing campaigns (KMB, on behalf of SIRO). One respondent even believed that 100% fibre technology was only available “in the likes of Singapore and Hong Kong”.
Telecom Regulator, ComReg, publishes a report each quarter on Irish household broadband subscriptions. There were 1.4m fixed subscriptions at the end of March and just over 900,000 of these are described as “DSL/VDSL (Digital Subscriber Line)” which sounds like advanced technology but are delivered in part over old copper lines. The thing is that many of these customers have purchased a broadband product with ‘fibre’ in its name unaware of the true nature of their connection. This lack of transparency is the issue that the Advertising Standard Authority for Ireland (ASAI)’s guidance note seeks to address.
There is undoubtedly a demand for the “real” 100% fibre broadband in Ireland. Since SIRO launched, Irish FTTH subscriptions have grown from 8,000 in January 2017 to 108,000 subscriptions in March 2019, making it by far the fastest growing market segment.
The Importance of Transparency in Advertising
Currently there is little differentiation between part-fibre and full fibre networks in marketing and this has clouded the perception of 100% fibre among consumers. With a fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) connection, the presence of copper even in the last few metres between the street cabinet and the home significantly reduces internet speed. For example, the highest consistent speed with FTTC is less than 100 mbps (megabits per second), whereas a fibre to the home (FTTH) from SIRO delivers a reliable, consistent 1,000 mbps (or 1 Gigabit per second). According to the KMB research, speed remains the determining factor in consumer choice of broadband service but accurate speed information isn’t readily available, instead substituted by phrases like “lightning fast” or “superfast”.
Consumers deserve transparency when purchasing any product and broadband advertising is no different. According to our research, 73% of consumers would like a “quality broadband mark” that guarantees the types of service they would receive. The new guidelines published yesterday stipulate that suppliers have to describe the network that the service is delivered across – 100% Fibre, Part Fibre or all Copper. This important change will help to provide clarity to consumers.
Developments in Europe
France was the pioneer in regulating broadband marketing. Since 2016 operators in France are under legal obligation to disclose how much of their network is Fibre if that term is used. For example: “The connection of the home is not all optical fibre but a mixture of Copper & Fibre…” In 2018, the Italian Competition Authority (AGCOM) found that retailers were misusing the term “fibra” (fibre) in their advertisements, and fined the offenders more than €13m. AGCOM ruled that from January 2019 retailers could not advertise “fibra” unless the full line was fibre and must say “Fibre on a copper mixed network” if its only part-fibre.
A key policy objective of the European Commission is the establishment of the Digital Single Market (DSM) where EU citizens and businesses could avail of all the economic and societal benefits of the Gigabit society. These benefits can only be realised if there is widespread roll out and adoption of high speed broadband across the EU28. In September 2016, EU connectivity targets were set as follows: All schools, public services and enterprises would have access to 1 GB (1,000 MB) connectivity by 2025 and that all households would have access to a minimum of 100Mbps, upgradable to 1 GB. These targets and the realisation of an inclusive Gigabit society requires adequate and future-proofed infrastructure in place in all member states (European Commission). To this end, the new European Electronic Communications Code (EECC which will be transposed into Irish Law by December 2020) promotes and prioritises both the rollout and take-up of Very High Capacity Broadband networks (VHCN).
Adoption of Very High Capacity networks like FTTH is jeopardised when consumers are confused by misuse of the word “fibre” in marketing. This in turn undermines the investment case for alterative operators considering building new high capacity networks – why invest millions of euro in capital in a superior network if all operators are allowed market themselves as “Fibre”?
The FTTH Council Europe are Calling for Change
This is an opinion which is shared by the FTTH Council Europe, which wrote an open letter to European Council ministers on the importance of transparency in broadband advertising. The Council argued that if a consumer believes they have a fibre connection, they are unlikely to change it, however, when consumers “are aware of the differences between 100% fibre and copper connections, they ultimately choose fibre”. This risks undermining both the aims of the new Code (access to and take up of Very High Capacity Networks) and the Digital Single Market.
SIRO supports the ASAI’s new guidelines. The data usage needs of consumers are changing and they need transparent, reliable information to choose the network that suits those needs. Additionally, investors need assurance that if they finance and build the new high quality networks that Europe needs then they can differentiate that service when it goes to market. While it has been argued that using the terms “part” and “full” fibre may confuse consumers, the introduction of more accurate advertisements allows consumers to make a fully informed decision when choosing their connection.