UK ISPs exploit 'shocking acceptance of mediocre broadband'

Experts say dishonest advertising stymies innovation and artificially inflates the value of lower-grade connections

There's no denying that the rollout of high-speed, fibre-optic broadband in the UK has been far from easy.

Countless reports show Britain lags behind other countries when it comes to connected infrastructure and speed, and things don't seem to be getting any better.

However, despite the clear challenges, broadband advertisements paint a very different picture. Many of the country's biggest internet service providers use the term "fibre" in their marketing campaigns, but few have been actually able to deliver on the pledges they make when it comes to speed and availability.

That's according to network provider CityFibre, which recently commissioned a survey of 3,400 broadband customers.

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The firm believes that millions of UK broadband customers are being misled by services labelled as "full fibre" that are, in fact, heavily reliant on legacy copper cables. It blames the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for being "backward-looking" and failing to crackdown down on the use of the term. Currently, the ASA doesn't offer a clear definition of what "full fibre" should entail, and CityFibre says this is confusing customers.

While copper cables are still common throughout the UK, 65% of respondents to CityFibre's survey said they had upgraded to a full-fibre service, while 24% said they had purchased full fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband. The reality is that only 3% of the country has access to true 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 IT Pro, 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 "super fast" instead of "fibre".

Of course, this isn't something that hurts consumers; small businesses and large organisations are also be falling victim to misleading broadband adverts.

Killing economic development

Darren Kilburn, principal consultant of policy at independent telecoms advisory firm FarrPoint, says misleading broadband advertisements have become common over the last few years. But he argues that it's a much bigger issue than just wording and that economic development could be put in jeopardy.

"When a new poster 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."

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"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 services has a knock on impact not only on businesses but also on social inclusion and wider economic development."

Broadband providers are selling next-generation services at affordable prices, but they're failing to deliver on speed. 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; standards that are advertised in the range at lower price points, but are not consistently met. This stymies innovation, it slows progress and it inflates the retail value of the service which maintains higher prices for lower grade services," adds Kilburn.

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 the technology offers and its availability throughout the country.

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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.

The rule change also compels ISPs to provide the "average" speeds customers can expect, rather than vague terms such as "up to", and remind customers to use speed checkers to regularly monitor their connections.

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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."

Need for further regulatory action

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.

"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."

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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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