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Ofcom tackles telcos' confusing fibre claims

UK telco watchdog Ofcom has called on operators to be clearer about what they mean by 'fibre' when selling broadband to consumers.

Mary Lennighan

December 13, 2023

2 Min Read

The regulator has issued a set of guidelines designed to ensure that customers know more about what they're signing up to at the point of sale, so they avoid any unwelcome surprises afterwards.

Ofcom said the term 'fibre' is being applied inconsistently by the industry, so that sometimes it refers to fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP), while at other times it could mean fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) or hybrid fibre coaxial (HFC).

As a result, according to to Ofcom's own research, only 46 percent of broadband customers who claimed to be connected to full fibre actually live in areas where the technology is available. Furthermore, 27 percent lack confidence in understanding the language and terminology used by their provider.

Ofcom hopes its new guidelines will clear up this confusion.

It has called on telcos to give a short description of the underlying network technology of each broadband product using one or two, clear and unambiguous terms, such as 'full-fibre', 'part-fibre', 'cable', or 'copper'. These terms need to be used at point of sale, regardless of whether the purchase is made online, in person, or over the phone. It should also be set out in the contract information and in the contract summary.

Ofcom has also said using the word 'fibre' on its own is ambiguous, so telcos need to avoid using it to describe the underlying technology. Instead they specifically need to use terms like 'full-fibre' to describe FTTP, and 'part-fibre' when discussing FTTC, for example.

The guidelines also recommend that telcos offer a more thorough explanation of broadband technology – on a dedicated part of their Website, for example – in easy-to-understand terms, so that interested customers can understand in more detail what they're getting.

"By requiring clear, straightforward information on network technologies, consumers will have a better understanding of the characteristics of their broadband service, so that they can compare services more easily and choose the best one to meet their needs," said Selina Chadha, Ofcom's director of connectivity, in a statement.

The development will doubtless go down well with CityFibre.

The altnet was left disappointed by a High Court decision in 2019 that upheld the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)'s ruling that broadband companies are allowed to use the word 'fibre' to describe fixed-line connections that still use a bit of copper, like FTTC.

CityFibre argued that consumers are being led to believe that connections that still rely on a degree of copper are fibre broadband. This is misleading, it said, because tech like FTTC is incomparable, performance-wise, to FTTP.

Ofcom's new guidelines should settle the issue once and for all.

Operators have until 16 September 2024 to implement them. It's not clear what sanctions would be in the offing if they don't, but presumably they would face one or a combination of a wrist-slapping, a serious talking to, and a public shaming.

About the Author(s)

Mary Lennighan

Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.

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