Broadband providers splash advertisements with claims about their ‘superfast fibre’ packages, but what’s the difference between fibre optic connections and the standard, ADSL broadband that dominated the market until a few years ago? Do you need to plump for a superfast fibre connection, or can you stick to your current deal? Will a fibre connection require special installation? And just how fast is superfast and what will it mean for your internet browsing?
We break down your options at the router.
ADSL broadband, also known as standard broadband, delivers an internet connection through the copper wires of the existing landline phone network. It’s available to 99% of UK addresses and is currently used by about 38% of internet-connected households. But because it uses a form of infrastructure designed and installed for the telephone conversations of a century ago, there are limitations to ADSL.
Standard broadband comes in two variants: ADSL, with theoretical maximum download speeds of 8 Megabits per second (Mbps) and ADSL2+, with hypothetical maximum download speeds of 24 Mbps. However, few users will attain those speeds because attenuation—loss of speed over distance—is pronounced on copper phone wires. The further you live from your local phone exchange, the slower the speed you’ll receive at home. At around 3km from the phone exchange, ADSL2+ speeds dwindle to 8.5Mbps and at 5km, they’re just 1.4Mbps, making ADSL internet almost unusably slow for rural and isolated homes.
Network contention—traffic on the lines—will also erode speeds, especially at peak times. But a recent Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruling requires broadband providers to account for these roadblocks when listing speeds in marketing material. Instead of crowing about ‘up to’ speeds, ISPs now advertise average speeds – those attained by 50% of households during peak hours of 8pm and 10pm. Providers offering ADSL2+ connections advertise average download speeds of between 10 and 11 Mbps.
ADSL connections are asymmetrical, meaning upload speeds are slower than download speeds: around 2Mbps upstream is standard. This is somewhat of a design feature, reflecting the way most households use the internet, downloading much more content than they upload.
Standard broadband deals can be purchased starting from £17 a month, including line rental.
Fibre connections deliver internet over fibre optic cables—mostly. There are actually two kinds of fibre internet: fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) and fibre to the premises (FTTP), also called full fibre and fibre to the house (FTTH). The difference between the two comes down to the ‘last mile’ – the wires between your street cabinet and doorstep (or router).
FTTC connections have fibre optic cables running from the phone exchange to street cabinets, but the final leg to your home is made on the same copper wires used by ADSL connections. FTTC comes with three theoretical maximum download speeds 80 Mbps, 55 Mbps, and 40 Mbps, although attenuation over copper phone lines means only homes within 30 metres of a street cabinet can expect to achieve these speeds. The average speeds advertised by ISPs are around 67 Mbps, 50 Mbps, and 36 Mbps. The lower tier of fibre optic broadband deals start from around £20 per month, including line rental.
Because these connections don’t run fibre optic cables specifically to your home, they’re easy to install – internet service providers simply need to run fibre wires to local street cabinets and upgrade their software. And they’ve done so in most places – currently 95% of UK addresses can access FTTC broadband, up from just 70% five years ago. Nowadays, 42% of households with internet connections use fibre.
FTTP connections – also called full fibre internet – cover the entire network distance on fibre optic cables and can deliver speeds of up to 1 Gbps (1,000 Mbps), nearly 20 times the UK average. The full fibre connections on the market today provide speeds that average 300Mbps downstream – internet that qualifies as ‘ultrafast.’ These connections don’t suffer from attenuation like ADSL and FTTC fibre connections do, while download and upload speeds are symmetrical.
However, due to the more involved installation they require, FTTP connections are currently available to just 5% of UK premises, significantly behind the 89% of homes that can be connected to full fibre in Portugal and 71% of Spanish homes that can access it.
Openreach, the UK’s internet infrastructure operator, hosts a website that will tell you – with the input your postcode or landline phone number – if fibre is available in your area and whether it’s FTTP or FTTC. And if you can’t access full fibre yet, hold on. Last summer the government announced plans to extend full fibre connections to an additional 15 million homes by 2025 and make universal full-fibre coverage mandatory by 2033.
Most superfast internet connections in the UK are fibre optic. The rest are cable, primary offered by Virgin Media, which delivers internet over a combination of fibre and coaxial cables, to just under 20% of UK households.
Overall, just under half of UK households have sprung for fibre internet. But these fibre optic connections are the best suited to the way we use internet today – and will become more so as our appetites for streaming and internet-enabled gadget and appliances grows. They provide the download speeds needed to comfortably stream Netflix and play online video games – particularly if multiple devices and users are jockeying for megabits. Bandwidth is another way of representing speed – it’s the amount of data a connection can receive in a single second and must be shared between all services on a network. In a modern household, only fibre optic broadband provides the bandwidth needed for all our devices – from laptops to set top TV boxes to smart appliances – that share our Wi-Fi connections.
At the lower tier, fibre optic connection can be obtained for just around £5 more per month than ADSL broadband. In fact, if you’re out of contract on your standard, ADSL broadband contract, you could be paying more for slower speeds than you would be for a new fibre optic tariff. Recent research from Ofcom has suggested that 4 million British households outside of their initial contract period on standard broadband could switch to fibre optic internet for the same, or even less, than they’re currently paying and benefit from the zippy speeds of FTTC, if not FTTP.