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Last week, the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) announced it’s ‘scoping a review’ into the use of the term ‘fibre’ to describe broadband services.

It said: “The UK Government’s recently published Digital Strategy made clear its commitment to invest in full-fibre broadband infrastructure, which is likely to make those services available to significantly more people, and also made clear its view that the term ‘fibre’ should only be used to describe full-fibre broadband services.  A recent debate in Parliament saw those MPs who participated also expressing their concerns about the use of the term ‘fibre’ to describe part-fibre broadband services.

In response to that context and those concerns, we are now scoping a review of how we interpret the Advertising Codes when judging the use of the term ‘fibre’ to describe broadband services. In particular, we will be considering whether the use of that term is likely to cause people to be materially misled. Our work has already begun and we will provide an update with more information by the summer.”

The announcement came as quite a shock as the ASA had previously been steadfast in its response to similar calls for a review. As recently as 2016 it refused one stating:

“In light of the lack of any significant change in the availability and uptake of FTTP in the UK since the ASA Council’s previous ruling, we consider that there is little merit in continuing with a formal investigation to review the issue again, when it is very likely that Council will reach the same conclusion. In essence, we consider that the use of ‘fibre-optic’ to refer to a FTTC service is unlikely to mislead, as consumers are likely to expect a ‘fibre-optic’ service to deliver faster speeds than an a standard ADSL service.”

Why the change of heart?

We fail to see what has changed so significantly in the industry within the last year to warrant this complete turnaround so we can only presume the ASA is clearly bowing down to mounting Government pressure following the recent publication of its Digital Strategy. The ASA as good as said so itself in its statement. Plus a number of MPs including Matt Warman (MP for Boston and Skegness) have been very vocal over recent weeks about the subject. For example, Warman said: “An advertised fibre connection should be entirely fibre – that is to say the fibre to the cabinet options favoured for much of the UK roll-out should not count. The aim of this is twofold: consumers who pay for ‘fibre broadband’ shouldn’t actually be paying for copper broadband, and providers who do offer fibre to the premise should not be equated with those who don’t.”

Is it necessary?

To help answer this question, it would be interesting to know how many complaints have actually been received from disgruntled customers who believe they have been misled by the use of ‘fibre’ in broadband advertising. We suspect it’s probably a low amount and that this has much more to do with keeping the Government happy as it continues its push on the rollout of pure fibre services such as FTTP. Perhaps it thinks by changing the way fibre broadband is advertised it can encourage customers to demand ‘proper’ fibre connectivity from their ISPs and drive further investment into FTTP and similar services by providers. We do wonder if the approach would be the same if the likes of clearly pro-BT Ed Vaizey were in still in power at the DCMS?

Missed opportunity?

The problem is, part fibre solutions such as FTTC have been allowed to be advertised as ‘fibre broadband’ for almost 10 years and the ongoing marketing campaigns of various high profile suppliers will have already made a significant mark on the market, particularly in the minds of consumers. Is it too late then to change or potentially even reverse that, and would it have any significant impact? We think it’s too little too late and could easily just cause more market confusion now. At the end of the day – do the majority of consumers even care about the technical definitions, or do they just want the fastest broadband they can get for the best price?

As with most things, a change to the use of ‘fibre’ in advertising will probably satisfy some customers (probably the more technical ones) and potentially add some clarity as the market dynamics change and FTTP type products become more accessible – although that’s still some way off. However other customers, the majority we would expect, will continue to be oblivious to the implications and be happy to simply opt for the fastest option available to them regardless of the technicalities. The market already ‘understands’ part fibre connections to be ‘fibre broadband’ and changing the rules now is likely to cause more confusion, not less. Instead, would it not be better to retain the overall umbrella of ‘fibre broadband’ but adopt terminology such as ‘part fibre’ and ‘pure fibre’ in our product descriptions and marketing to distinguish between the two? This is an approach already being used across the industry – do we really need intervention from the ASA?

One thing is for sure though, if providers are forced to change their advertising policies it won’t come cheap! Think of how much the likes of Virgin and BT have invested over the recent years to push their ‘fibre broadband’ services only to have to re-brand and clarify what the service actually is and what the customer will receive.

Have your say!

Do you think the ASA should review the use of ‘fibre’ in the marketing of ‘part-fibre’ services or do you think changing the rules now will lead to further confusion and hassle? Do your customers care about the technical differences or not? Does it affect your marketing plans?We would be really interested to hear how our partners feel these changes would affect their own marketing practices and if they have encountered any customer confusion over this in the past. Please leave us a comment.

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