With more of us working from home, fast and reliable internet connection is now more essential than ever before.
This is especially important in bigger households where a number of different family members may be piling onto broadband at the same time. And if a connection runs slow or cuts out altogether, stress levels can quickly rise.
When it comes to understanding cable broadband and whether it could be the answer to your internet needs, it’s first important to understand the wider options available.
Different kinds of broadband connection
The most common type of broadband connection is 'Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line’ or ADSL. It uses the same copper wires your home phone relies on.
With ADSL, the speed you get will depend on the distance you live from your telephone exchange. The further away you are, the slower your speed is likely to be, as speed is lost over greater lengths of wiring.
In terms of speed, with ADSL2+, the maximum speed is around 24 Mbps (Megabits per second), while ADSL1 is slower, with a maximum speed of around just 8 Mbps.
This type of connection uses fibre optic cables to transmit data, and download speeds are a lot faster than ADSL.
Providers such as Sky, Plusnet and TalkTalk all provide a fibre connection via Openreach’s fibre network. BT also provides a fibre connection via this network (which it owns).
Fibre promises speeds of at least 30 Mbps. Speeds at or above 30 Mbps are defined as ‘superfast’ by telecoms regulator, Ofcom. According to its research, superfast broadband is now available to 95% of UK properties.
Equally, fibre broadband is offered by many providers to deliver not only superfast – but also ultrafast – connections. (As a guide, Ofcom defines speeds above 300 Mbps as ‘ultrafast.’)
Two different types of fibre connection
Fibre is a pretty wide-ranging term which applies to a service which uses fibre cables at some point in the connection from the provider to your home. And there are two main types of fibre broadband to get your head around.
With ‘fibre to the cabinet’ (FTTC), fibre optic cables deliver broadband to street cabinets, but then copper wires deliver it to your home. This makes it the slower of the two types of fibre.
To get the very fastest broadband speeds of up to a blistering 1 Gbps (Gigabit) – from the likes of Hyperoptic and Gigaclear – you will need what is known as ‘fibre to the premises’ (FTTP).
Also known as ‘fibre to the home,’ (FTTH), this involves your broadband being delivered from start to finish via fibre optic cables. This includes both the connection from the exchange to your street cabinet, and then the connection from the street cabinet to your home going via cable.
While the absence of copper wires means FTTP broadband may be lightning quick, the fact it involves having fibre optic cables run directly to your home, means it is a more expensive option, and only available in limited areas in the UK.
So, where does cable broadband fit in?
The third kind of broadband is cable broadband.
It’s a very different kind of broadband connection to ADSL offering potentially very different speeds. And while cable and fibre have a lot more in common (in that they are both capable of offering the highest broadband speeds), they are still not quite the same thing.
Cable is associated with key providers, such as Virgin Media which runs its own network.
What’s the difference between cable and fibre?
With cable broadband, as with fibre broadband, the lines between the exchange and your street cabinet are fibre optic.
But the crucial difference with cable is that the broadband then goes from the cabinet into your home via what is known as a ‘coaxial cable’ network. (These cables are also used to deliver cable TV).
By using coaxial cables, you get a much faster internet connection than the old-school copper phone line cables.
Pros of cable broadband
Cable offers faster download speeds than ADSL. Coaxial cables can send data a lot faster than standard phone lines, delivering speeds of at least 30 Mbps – though some packages can offer significantly higher speeds, up to 152 Mbps.
Equally, the very top-end cable deals may even go beyond this. Virgin Media’s fibre optic offering includes packages with average speeds up to 516 Mbps. It is also upgrading its cable network so homes can have gigabit speeds.
Cable is a lot more reliable than ADSL and, while the broadband isn’t quite as speedy as a ‘full fibre’ connection (where the entire connection is made of fibre optic cable), it is a great deal faster than FTTC broadband.
This makes cable is a great ‘happy medium’ between copper wires and fibre optic cables.
Prices for superfast broadband are coming down while speeds are going up. And you may be able to use savings on offer for ‘bundling’ cable TV and phone into one package, along with your cable broadband.
Cons of cable broadband
While you don’t need to live right next to a telephone exchange to get the fastest speeds via cable, there can be signal loss over longer distances. By contrast, fibre optic signal does not degrade the further it travels.
Also, while prices are coming down, they are generally still higher than for ‘standard’ ADSL broadband.
Availability of cable broadband
Cable isn’t as widely available in the UK as ADSL, so you may not have quite as many deals to choose from. That said, figures suggest Virgin Media, which dominates the market, now covers around 60% of the UK – and its reach is gradually growing.
Can I get fibre broadband or cable broadband?
While coverage is improving all the time, households which can’t get access to fast connections via the fibre or cable network are likely to include those in some rural and ‘hard-to-reach’ areas.
Typically, these areas will still be on ADSL broadband. The same is true even of certain pockets of some cities. It’s easy to find out with a postcode checker what types of broadband are available in your area.
Switching to a new type of connection
While it is possible to change from one type of broadband to another – such as from ADSL broadband to cable broadband – you will be limited by the connection types available where you live.
To get started and find out more, compare the best broadband deals at a comparison website. Once you’ve carried out a search with your postcode, you will be able to see results for your area.