What does 'fibre broadband' mean?
This year thinkbroadband turned 15. Back in 2000 we started the site (known then as ADSLguide.org.uk) as a fun project to help provide updates on the rollout of ADSL services which were in their infancy. Back then very few lucky people were able to get 'cable broadband' services (and I was unfortunately not one of them), whilst ADSL was offering some promise to everyone else.
Over the years, we've been through various phases of technologies and watched an increase in headline speeds from 500Kbps/2Mbps-range to services running in excess of 100Mbps from widely available services, with a few lucky areas able to reach speeds above 1Gbps. As download speeds became dominant in the marketing battle, we saw people talking about having a '50 meg' service or even 50MB/s. We used to correct this and explain the difference between 'megabytes' (or MB/s) and 'megabits' (or Mb/s) and why 'meg' was ambiguous but over time we found this detracted from the message and confused users who kept hearing 'meg' everywhere else. Although we will passively correct any references to megabytes per second in interviews, we have adopted the position of speaking in terms of 'up to 50 meg' when we refer about speeds up to 50Mbps, because this is what users hear elsewhere, even though it is not, technically an accurate term to describe speed.
We have come across a similar difficulty in recent years with the use of the phrase 'fibre broadband' with most new services sold being marketed as 'fibre' broadband. This started back when Virgin Media launched their 'fibre' services for the fibre/co-ax hybrid cable broadband service. Even today Virgin promises its 200Mbps service as 'UP TO 200Mbps OPTICAL FIBRE' and on the same page has a picture of a copper co-ax cable explaining how it is 'thicker copper' than BT's service enabling it to deliver faster services. We have also seen uses of combined terms of 'wireless fibre' to describe hybrid services. Most of the 'fibre broadband' services sold by those other than Virgin Media are based on VDSL/hybrid services which use the a copper telephone line for the last bit between your home and the green street cabinet, and then fibre onwards to the telephone exchange and beyond, just like Virgin uses co-ax to the nearest node (although as they will be keen to point out, technologically this copper cable is somewhat superior to the telephone wiring most others rely on.)
Is it right to call these 'fibre broadband', and should we as responsible industry commentators call it such?
The answer to the first is it's a matter of judgement. Do you call something 'fibre' broadband if 99%+ of the service 'to the Internet' is through a fibre-optic cable and the very last few hundred metres (or in some cases a bit more) via copper? As technically minded people, we started from the position that it probably shouldn't as if it's not fibre in your home, it's not fibre, right?
The issue however is that when dealing with the public who aren't as as technically aware, the service we call 'cable broadband' or 'VDSL' meant nothing to them - they called it fibre broadband. This may be due to the way it was marketed by providers, but it is what it is.
(Side note for technically minded users: You can debate as to whether a certain large American telco who refuses to peer with another major IPv6 network for commercial reasons and therefore does not offer 'full' Internet access should be able to advertise it as 'Internet' connectivity)
The question for us is therefore what do we call these hybrid fibre services? We've adopted the same position as on the 'meg' debate - to use the language users expect and try to educate on the differences as appropriate. If we insist on using different terminology because we feel it's technically accurate but not accessible, we'll just cause user confusion and they'll go to another website to read about such services, and be no wiser than before. We do talk about FTTH/FTTP, in other words 'full fibre' services and continue to believe they represent the best technology to deliver future-proof fast broadband connectivity, but we understand why most infrastructure operators have chosen not to migrate to full-fibre solutions in one go.
In the very near future, we will be personalising our broadband provider listings and as part of this, full fibre providers will appear more prominently to those users able to receive these faster-than-superfast services
On that note, we'd like to wish all our visitors a great New Year and hope 2016 shall bring broadband services to more of you.