Calling Fibre by its Name

From a technology standpoint, the various flavours of next generation networks connecting the home have pretty clear distinctions: FTTH, FTTB, FTTC, etc. may sound barbaric to the layman but they have exact definitions. From a marketing standpoint though, it no longer holds true. Everyone, in virtually every market, has been labeling and selling all of the above (and more) as “fiber”.

The French government last week made official a position destined to clarify these things for consumers. As regards to FTTx, it essentially changes two things:

  • whenever download speed is mentioned in an advert, upload speed will have to be mentioned as well;
  • if the network doesn’t actually connect the home with fiber, this will have to be specified in adverts.

SFR/Numéricable is going ballistic over this decision. The company passes millions of homes in multi-dwelling units with a hybric fiber coaxial network. Their last amplifier is in the building basement, so they have been (successfully so far) arguing for years that it was technically identical to FTTB and therefore fiber.

The company’s spokespeople (including its new CEO) have come out in force saying that:

  • the new position is commercially impractical,
  • that their service is just as good as any other variant of fiber based networking,
  • that this debate exists only in France.

That last one is easy to debunk: I’ve seen this debate happen everywhere in Europe, with advertising authorities, competition authorities and their ilk involved in Britain, Netherlands, Turkey and many other places. It is by no means a consideration unique to France.

The real question of course is “does it matter ?” I’ve heard it argued many a time that customers didn’t care what technology they were connected to, as long as the service was good and what they wanted. I think that’s the kind of arrogant position from marketers who despise their customers. Also, it’s largely untrue, at least in mature markets. Customers care about what they’re getting but also how they’re getting it. And even if customers didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to it, if you’re going to use a technology to sell your product, it should be accurate. That’s how customers educate themselves. There’s a reason we don’t have “meat” on food labels instead of “beef” or “pork”. There’s also a reason why horsemeat Lasagna were a big scandal in Europe: it’s not that they were improper for consumption, it’s that when you buy beef, you should get beef.

I think cable and FTTC providers have had it way too easy on this particular count in the past, mostly because advertising and competition authorities weren’t savvy enough to understand the differences between the different networking solutions. It’s time for the marketers to clarify and sell what they advertise.

Of course, it’s also factually untrue to argue that it makes no difference: a point to multipoint fiber to the home technology is today capable of delivering much more upload (and download, but maybe not for too long with Docsis 3.1 coming in). The fact that the limits may not be commercially available today is irrelevant. There is a difference in that signing up today with an FTTH solution is a guarantee that you’ll get the highest possible technological vector for years to come. It’s also a guarantee in some markets that you can switch providers over the same fiber. That is certainly the case in France (at least on paper).

Finally, coming back to France, as Orange is rumored to be looking into G.Fast for last meters connections to accelerate deployment, it will be subject to the same ruling. This may be in part about competitors whining that they are deploying the more expensive network without being able to advertise the difference, but it’s also, and primarily about clarity for consumers. After all, if the name “fiber” didn’t make a difference, cable operators wouldn’t be using it.