by Vicky Read – Senior Policy and Public Affairs Manager

Consumers shouldn’t be misled into thinking they can get full fibre benefits on a copper broadband network – they can’t! Copper is dead. Recent permission given to CityFibre by the High Court though, means the stage is set to sort out ‘fibre’ advertising rules once and for all. If successful, this will help to accelerate our nation’s full fibre future by giving consumers the clarity of information they need to make best choices.

For years, residents from all corners of the UK have complained about painfully slow broadband speeds, unreliable services and broken advertising promises. And it’s no wonder! Our country’s infrastructure is among the most out-dated in the western world following decades of make do and mend improvements at best, and neglect at worst.

This approach has not been without consequences. Unlike nations such as Sweden and South Korea, who made the decision years ago to invest in the highest quality of digital infrastructure i.e. full “end to end” fibre optic networks, the UK has been forced to build its world-leading digital economy on Victorian-age copper phone lines.

The situation cannot be allowed to continue. The UK is a service-based economy; today’s service-based economies run on the internet, and quality, fast, future-proofed internet runs on fibre. What’s more, our day to day lives now run increasingly online. Smart phones require quality connectivity, and even our cars, televisions and home appliances offer advanced applications through internet and mobile access. This is just the beginning of the race for digital transformation, but the UK risks being left in the starting blocks if it fails to either invest in future proof full fibre infrastructure itself, or continues to allow consumers to be targeted with information that hinders their ability to make informed choices.

Fortunately, a revolution is stirring. On 22 May 2018, the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, outlined the Government’s vision for the UK’s digital infrastructure and set an unprecedented commitment to deliver full fibre to 15 million premises by 2025, and national coverage by 2033.

This is exactly the kind of ambition the UK needs and CityFibre’s role is set to be significant. We have plans in place to build full fibre to 5 million premises by 2025, and through our partnership with Vodafone, we’re already on track to deliver to 1 million homes and businesses by 2021.

Nevertheless, right now many consumers may be wondering: “What’s all the fuss about? We already have fibre broadband!”. Most will be unaware that they don’t, or that only 3-4 per cent of UK premises genuinely have access to full fibre. Most so-called ‘fibre’ connections are part-fibre part-copper hybrids that are masquerading as ‘full fibre’, but are incapable of delivering anything close to the same capabilities.

Herein lies a major challenge for the builders of the UK’s full fibre future.

At present, current Advertising Standard Authority (ASA) rules permit advertisers to describe part-fibre part-copper products as ‘fibre’. Earlier this year, the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport’s Digital Strategy called for these rules to change so that ‘fibre’ could only apply to full fibre products in advertising. However, after reviewing the term, the ASA concluded that current practice was not materially misleading. The summarised rationale for their decision was that because consumers don’t understand the term fibre, it doesn’t matter if it’s used to describe products that are not entirely made of fibre.

At CityFibre, we believe this was the wrong decision – not just for individual consumers, who should be entitled to make decisions based on accurate and truthful advertising – but for the UK’s future economy. Over the next five to seven years half of UK households will be able to choose to switch to full fibre, but, if there are barriers to take-up, such as misleading advertising, the UK will fail to realise maximum benefit from this greatly enhanced connectivity.

That’s why we took to the courts on 12 June 2018 to make our case at an oral hearing.

We argued that that the approach taken to reach this position was fundamentally flawed -that the methodology used by the ASA did not support the sweeping generalisations it made in its response and that the demographic selection was not representative or relevant to the context of the study.

Finally, and most crucially, we argued that the findings actually supported the view that the indiscriminate and current widespread use of the word ‘fibre’ is misleading.

The High Court saw sense where the ASA failed to, granting us permission to take the ASA’s decision to judicial review later this summer.

The story here is ongoing, but support for the High Court’s decision has been considerable and we’re hopeful that it will result in a change in advertising rules for the benefit of both consumers and the economy.

Vicky Read is CityFibre’s Senior Policy and Public Affairs Manager. This article was first published by Vicky on LinkedIn a week after the High Court granted CityFibre permission to take the ASA to court on its decision to allow copper-based broadband products to be advertised as “fibre”.

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