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Does fibre mean fibre?

Fibre broadband

Fibre is the new premium standard in broadband. But with speeds seemingly dependent on whether your fibre goes to the cabinet, your home or somewhere in between, does fibre really mean fibre?

Broadband advertising is confusing. That’s something we’ve been banging on about for a while. So it’s good to see the CAP (Committee of Advertising Practice) consulting on how providers advertise ‘up to’ speeds to customers, and it’s something Which? will be responding to.

But here is another thing that might add to the confusion, especially if you are not a telecoms nerd like myself. It’s the meaning of fibre and how Internet Service Providers (ISPs) use it in their advertisements.

Faster with more fibre

When a prospective customer sees a broadband advert boasting about ‘ultra, hyper, super-douper fast [insert superlative and superlative] fibre’, do they realise that, in most cases, at least some of their connection will be made up of traditional telephone line copper wiring?

There are a number of ways in which you can get your property connected. In many instances a provider will bring the optical cable as far as the cabinet box and then, depending on how far from the cabinet you live, some other form of cabling will connect the cabinet to your property. It could be copper cabling or some other technology. This is called Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC).

Depending on where you live, some providers may provide a full fibre connection to the home, meaning the cable runs directly into your home. This is called Fibre to the Home (FTTH), or Fibre to the Premises (FTTP). At the moment, around 2% of UK homes have access to full Fibre to the Home and a very small number of altnets (alternative ISPs like Hyperoptic and Gigaclear) offer it.

At present, Virgin Media is the only provider running a slightly different operation. It’s coax-fibre hybrid network (bear with us) uses Fibre-to-the-Cabinet before a coaxial cable takes the connection to your home. Coaxial blocks interference better than standard phone lines allowing Virgin to run faster internet services.

What type of fibre connection do you have?

Fibre to the Cabinet (61%, 637 Votes)

Don't know (21%, 221 Votes)

Fibre to the Home (18%, 190 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,048

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Speed begins where fibre ends

Now what difference does an FTTH connection make? Well, speed is important and the more fibre you have in your broadband connection the higher the likelihood you’ll be enjoying faster broadband.

A fibre to the home connection should mean the speed you pay for and the speed you actually get are closer than if you have a ‘to the Cabinet’ connection. So if you’re paying for 1Gb, you’ll more than likely get 1Gb if you have an FTTH connection, or at least it should be in the same ballpark.

So is fibre really fibre if it doesn’t run all the way to your home? Do you think its fair to call an internet connection fibre when it might not be full fibre? We’d love to hear your views below.


“Up to” means nothing. It’s similar to a sale when you see “up to 70% off”.

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I had a funny feeling there was going to be an American dimension to this. I think dodgy marketing is a universal condition and UK commerce has been at it for generations.

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Thanks for that interesting history of the origin of certain advertising practices, Duncan. I wasn’t thinking about TV commercials in my comment because I rarely see any, but it is true that the whole world idolised Madison Avenue and their slick and clever techniques. The very first adverts on British commercial television were for American brands, largely because few UK companies had any experience of direct broadcast advertising into people’s homes and their early efforts were like something off the printed page with a dulcet voice-over. Even cinema adverts in the UK were fairly pathetic and so repetitive they became a standing joke and people mimicked them as they played.

Status consciousness certainly caught on in a big way in this country during the sixties as people became more affluent and consumer desirables were rolling off the production lines. This was certainly the case with motor cars and domestic hygiene products [remember the Persil adverts featuring two lines of washing, one white, the other grey?]. And everything from cigarettes to hairspray had connotations of neighbour superiority.

Apart from TV ads for films, I cannot recall any UK TV adverts at the moment that feature an American accent, but then I miss most of them. Perhaps it doesn’t cut much ice over here these days. It is certainly the case, however, that British actors and actresses are in high demand to do the voice-overs for American commercials because the British English accent is considered to be more authoritative than the American English version.

I exclude from this here the very enjoyable, and very well-made, adverts for Halifax Bank mortgages featuring the Top Cat characters. To my ears the voices are totally indistinguishable from the originals of fifty or more years ago, so some clever casting there. I just love Officer Dibble’s Manhattan drawl. TC needs a loan to move up-market to a better trash-can in a cleaner alley and he lays on the schmaltz to get one. Smart marketing. British advertising agency.

The comment that “a fibre to the home connection should mean the speed you pay for and the speed you actually get are closer than if you have a ‘to the Cabinet’ connection”, is not necessarily true. You have mader no allowance for contention which can also pull down speed very significantly. Your assertion is only valid in the same location and with the same supplier, it is not a generic rule. An FTTP connection in one area could still be slower than an FTTC solution in another. Also in the same location, two suppliers may (and usually will) have different contention rates, so provide different performance against the same quoted “up to” speed.

None of this is the ISPs adopting dodgy marketing practices, it’s just the logistics of delivery. The problem is that an “up to” speed, is an inappropriate way to categorise the product (due to each location being slightly different), but unfortunately one that we have become accustomed to and which can easily be productised as “up to” X, Y or Z. As such it would be difficult for any ISP to effect a change in isolation. It needs OfCom to take a hand and establish a better way – perhaps “a guaranteed minimum of” X, Y,or Z, or even a metered supply as with some other utilities.

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Thank you, Brian for making that very clear. I think we’re still waiting for the Advertising Standards Authority to reach a conclusion on the use of “up to”. Personally I hope it will be outlawed.

I agree with you, Duncan – there are far to many imponderables and aspects that are outside the control of the telecom service provider. Any guarantee would have to be very heavily qualified as being limited to the speed at the master socket only, with one router only and one device only served by a hard ethernet connexion to the router, and for average browsing activity only [not film, TV, games or other high-demand interactive content]. There would have to be exclusions for network overloads, power failures anywhere in the system, and a high contention ratio caused by traffic from other properties in the locality. It would then need to be understood that each deviation from that specification – extra devices, wireless connexions, high-speed content, etc – would have an adverse impact on the speed profile. In fact such a guarantee would be worthless and no one is going to waste their time devising one that would tick all the boxes.

I hope that most people would like to see ‘up to’ outlawed, but I don’t know where Which? stands on this nowadays. This Conversation is supposed to be about the description of broadband services (FTTP etc) and my efforts to elicit discussion of the ‘up to’ misrepresentation failed.

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And there was I thinking it was just gutter-level bamboozlement. I should have known better.

Thanks folks. We have had a lot of discussion about ‘up to’ in the earlier Conversations but, as I have said, I have no idea if Which? is pursuing this issue. Despite all the press releases and good press coverage, I’m not sure if Which? is prepared to criticise companies in the way that it used to.

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It certainly gets a lot of headlines in the UK. I am not in a position to comment on its public profile abroad; I wasn’t aware of any necessity to have one except within the consumer testing and advice community where its reputation faces stiff competition.

Personally, I feel that Which? falls short on its mission statement and I agree with Wavechange. With a million or more members, subscribers and supporters it should be strong and fearless.

Yes Duncan, I would like to see some much more positive action. I respect that the role of Which? seems to be to identify problems and report them to the appropriate organisations and authorities to pursue, but so often we see little progress and are back at square one.

If Which? did adopt a more aggressive stand then occasionally it might have to issue a public apology, but that might be a small price to pay if we can make real progress with other Which? campaigns.

I agree with John that Which? should be strong and fearless. Does anyone remember how the cover of Which? magazine sometimes carried high impact photos, for example a small 4WD Suzuki at 45 degrees when going round a corner and a steam iron with a melted aluminium soleplate thanks to thermostat failure and the absence of a safety cutout. The recent covers are more artistic but they have not registered in my memory.

With a strong push from Which? and support from subscribers, I think we could have got rid of dodgy broadband advertising by now, maybe up to five years ago.

Which? could have pushed for service providers to install nuisance call protection at the exchange when personal call blockers were introduced.

Which? could have asked us all to tell our banks what we think of them charging punitive interest rates, even if we have never had to pay them.

/rant 🙂

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The problem perhaps is that “up to” accurately describes the situation. Broadband speed is not a fixed parameter – it does vary as many have pointed out – distance from exchange, whether you have copper, FTTC, FTTP, time of day, how much traffic, how many people are using your connection and your own equipment, distance from router to pc, etc. How else can you describe such a variable service?

What we need, though, is two things in my view; a revision of the % of the people who will get the maximum speed from 10% to perhaps 50%, but on its own that is insufficient. Much more importantly a way of getting an estimate to the outside of your own premises of the typical speed you are likely to get- which I understand can be provided. Publicise the “up to” plus the way to get a personal estimate and what more can be done ?

My ISP used to advertise my service as ‘up to 24Mbps’ for its standard copper broadband and I never achieved more than a third of this speed. Thankfully it dropped the dishonest ‘up to’ statement in favour of an estimated speed range, which proved realistic.

Any estimate would have to assume that a single modern computer was plugged into the master socket.

There is some merit in ISPs erring on the low side with estimated speeds and with my present FTTP service the speed I record is almost invariably higher than what I am paying for.

If your pension was ‘up to X pounds a month’ and you received a third of that you might want a better description.

Duncan – I think it will be a gradual process to help make people aware of how our lives are being manipulated by the commercial world. It’s probably best to focus on UK examples that most people can relate to.

Labeling this as dishonest is incorrect. You are clearly not in the 10% to which this claim applies (unless you are saying that no-one got this speed of course.) unless your ISP told you this would be your speed. But if correct, 10% would have achieved this speed at their premises.

Simply focusing on “up to” is avoiding the real issue of how we do advise customers of what speed they are likely to get. I repeat the “up to” speed is used to describe the general speed for the area on an agreed basis. However what I want to know is the estimated speed I will get at my house. I asked my ISP for this and they gave me a figure which is generally achieved.
That is surely what we should be exploring?

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I think that industry has too much control of governments past and present, Duncan, but that’s way off our topic.

Malcolm – How has your ‘up to’ broadband speed helped you make an informed choice when choosing a broadband service?

Since government shows corruption, incompetence and seems to promote the interests of its members and employees over that of its customers, maybe industry is the slightly better choice. At least we can choose who to buy from. We aren’t generally locked into a 5 year contract with our food retailer, energy supplier or car repairer.

I don’t understand your question; I asked for and was given an estimate of speed. That is what I think is important. As I have said before, the published speed simply gives a general indication of the levels of service available in your area. We should focus on proposing the best advice and information a particular consumer needs if we want to be helpful.

We have agreed on getting an estimate of speed long ago, Malcolm. My question is what additional benefit is there in having an ‘up to’ speed? All it seems to do is confuse the public.

ISPs offer different speed ranges depending upon what you want and how much you want to spend. Mine offers 3 packages labelled as – Unlimited up to 17 Mbps, Fibre up to 38 Mbps and Fibre Extra up to 76 Mbps. That seems straightforward, not confusing, gives me a choice of what package to consider buying, and to compare with other providers charges.

We just have to hope that the service provider, in offering, say, 76Mbps, has checked that that is physically possible most of the time at the address concerned – although that could change overnight if a another high demand user signs up and starts downloading.

We are seeing that the first generation broadband capacity is fast being outstripped by demand and there will have to be some additional cables and cabinet capacity in many areas to supply people’s requirements – not necessarily to give higher speeds but to deliver the speeds offered. I wonder if any service provider has actually withdrawn any higher speed offers, and transferred any customers to lower speed tariffs [with commensurate financial adjustments], as it has become clear that customers might not be able to get what they are paying for during normal waking hours.

One aspect of this whole issue which has a tendency to raise my blood pressure is the misconception that those of us having to make do with a sub-standard broadband service live in isolated or at least rural locations… I’m located less than 2 miles from the central exchange in a city of 100,000 plus inhabitants and I’m repeatedly irritated by the barrage of material coming through my letter box and out of my TV set trying to persuade me to sign up for “amazing” fibre deals of one type or another NONE OF WHICH are available to my local cabinet. My greatest concern now is that there’s such an obsession with the so-called 5% that those of us unfortunate enough to be both urban and “fibre-less” have been simply forgotten…

Unfortunately I believe Ofcom lives in a dream world some way from reality, Nearlydan. I think they have seriously over-estimated the percentage of properties that are currently capable of accessing “decent broadband” [10 Mbps]. Perhaps they have accepted what Openreach have told them.

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I have been unlucky twice! I have just moved to a rural area where the speed I get is less than 2 mbps, yet, despite the location, there are homes less than 500 yards down the road that are getting speeds between 53 and 62 mbps. I moved from Manchester where I was less than 3 miles from the city centre. Again the speed I could obtain was less than 2mbps yet on the next street they had high speed fibre (77 mbps)! I was told that I was supplied by a different exchange and they still operated with copper wire. When I inquired as to when this would be replaced I was told that ‘there were no plans in the near future to carry out work of this nature’!

It’s more or less a lottery. We are (so we are constantly told) the 5th largest economy in the world and yet there are a substantial number of homes with broadband speeds that were common 15 years ago.

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Trevor Nicholls says:
19 June 2017

I personally​ had to explain to Talk Talk that their claim of providing fibre to my home was false. Then it was necessary to explain that their fibre was actually BT Openreach’s fibre and that it either terminated at my local exchange or in a road side terminated box where standard copper wire takes over. After three visit from BTO it finally reached the minimum speed claimed. Why is it necessary in 2017 for a customer to have to point out the obvious to a telecommunication company?

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The word ‘Rural’ is one I am beginning to loathe. “you live in an area madam where Fibre has not been turned on in the local exchange (4 miles away) it is a Rural area” Aghhh! For pity’s sake, I live in the countryside that is all. Nothing new about that is there? People have lived here for years but alas, my provider and many others seem to think it is the Moon.

Yes, Not much hope for Us Rural Peeps in The UK, But some interesting Stuff going on in Eire with SIRO .ie & Digiweb. Any Chance we might ever see Their Super Speeds over here ?

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I have FTTC and am approximately 1.5km from my cabinet. One downstream neighbour who is only about 0.1km nearer to the cabinet actually gets 23Mbps while my speed is approx. 7.9Mbps. I am waiting anxiously for news of the implementation of the new 10Mbps USO for my exchange under the BDUK rollout, but I am not going to hold my breath.

With regard to the Which? speed test, I do have concerns about its accuracy, though. When I test using ThinkBroadband’s speed test I get 8Mbps down and 1Mbps up (latency 78Ms). With BTWholesale I get 8.32Mbps down and 1.1Mbps up (59.25ms latency), whereas your speed test appears wildly out at 8.3Mbps down, 1.7Mbps up and 132ms latency. Can you explain why there is the significant error on the upload speed and on latency?

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Duncan, I and my neighbour both are connected to the same cabinet – he is a mere 0.1km closer. The only (probable) difference is that my connection may have more aluminium in the connecting cable. As for my testing, the computer doing the testing is Windows 2012R2 and is connected directly to the router by Cat5 cable which is itself connected to the BT FTTC modem which itself is a mere 30cm from the master socket. The TBB and BT Wholesale tests are remarkably consistent, whereas the Which? test shows a significantly higher upload speed and the latency is also very different.

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S. Fletcher says:
27 June 2017

We have fibre to a cabinet 3 miles away. Have had to go back to copper wire because we can now get a relatively reliable speed below 2. With fibre it just kept cutting out. We don’t have a choice Ed Vaizey. Surely all the government need to do to get a clear picture is see how many households are more than 2 miles from a cabinet. Or coincidentally are those all the households that aparently do not want superfast broadband!

S. Fletcher says:
27 June 2017

We have fibre to a cabinet 3 miles away. Have had to go back to copper wire because we can now get a relatively reliable speed below 2. With fibre it just kept cutting out. We don’t have a choice Ed Vaizey. Surely all the government need to do to get a clear picture is see how many households are more than 2 miles from a cabinet. Or coincidentally are those all the households that apparently do not want superfast broadband!

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J.Bunkell says:
10 November 2017

My broadband supply is from Utility Wharehouse, (really by now BT). Fibre was laid to the green box only. I was expecting some improvement, but no. It seems my B.B. speed is capped at 7 (mostly 5) Mb/s. unless I pay more.

My fibre broadband from Plusnet was delivered by the BT line to my house. The BT line is a massive problem as, we live in a densely populated urban area, (London). Apparently we are a long way from the ‘exchang’ which is why the signal is weak. BT needs to be forced to improve their service .

I upgraded to infinity and my broadband speed is slower. We have fibre to the cabinet. I wasn’t expecting much improvement as we are a long way out into the country, but I wasn’t expecting the speed to be slower.

Richard says:
23 May 2018

I think Fibre should be reserved for connections that are Fibre all the way to my house. This is the future and we should make it clear