What is fibre broadband?

·10-min read
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Fibre broadband is fast becoming a must-have utility. So what exactly is it and does your household need what it can offer?

What is fibre broadband?

Unlike ADSL broadband connections which use standard copper wires to send data, fibre optic broadband works by sending laser light along plastic or glass cables – literally at the speed of light. It means data can be sent and received at vastly improved speeds.

There are two kinds of fibre broadband, FTTC – fibre to the cabinet – being the most common. It connects fibre cables to the green cabinet in your street, which is then connected to your home with copper wires.

FTTP – or fibre to the premises – is where the fibre-optic cable travels all the way to your property, rather than stopping at a street cabinet.

As there is no copper wiring, this is also known as ‘full fibre’. It’s the quickest type of broadband but currently only accounts for a minority of the UK’s connections.

What are the advantages of fibre broadband?

Because it’s faster, it offers much slicker web browsing, seamless streaming and a generally much more satisfying online experience. Fibre broadband is also a lot more reliable when several members of one household all need to get online at the same time.

How fast is fibre broadband?

According to regulator Ofcom, superfast FTTC fibre connections (with some copper wires) offer download speeds of at least 30Mbps (megabits per second).

Ultrafast FTTP connections (‘full fibre’ straight to your door) offer download speeds of at least 300Mbps, with some packages offering up to 900Mbps or even 1 Gigabit per second (1,000Mbps).

For context, the average broadband speed for the UK is 71 Mbps, according to Ofcom.

How much does it cost?

Fibre is pricier than standard broadband, particularly for the ultrafast speeds via FTTP where broadband-only packages can cost more than £50 a month. There might also be set-up costs to consider. However, FTTP deals don’t require you to have a phone line, which goes some way to offsetting the expense.

Do I need fibre broadband?

Fibre-optic broadband is ideal for busy, modern households regularly downloading films or games, or uploading substantial digital files. It’s increasingly also a must for home-workers relying on high-quality video calls.

Can anyone get fibre optic braodband?

It depends on whether your area is serviced with fibre connections from one of the two main fibre providers – BT Openreach and Virgin Media.

The majority of broadband providers use the Openreach network – enter your postcode on the Openreach online fibre broadband checker to see if you can get it. Virgin Media has its own postcode checker that you can use to check if your area is serviced.

What if I can’t get fibre yet?

While most households have access to FTTC, FTTP is currently only available to only about 15% of households. But that’s going to change with Government targets set to get more homes connected.

If your area is not serviced yet, you can register your interest online with BT Openreach. If there’s enough demand from other locals that have also submitted an interest, BT may get in touch.

You can also register for updates with Virgin Media if you cannot currently get fibre at your address.

How do I find the best fibre broadband deal?

You’ll need to compare broadband packages on offer in the same way as with standard broadband deals. Results can be filtered by cost, but it’s important to remember that it isn’t all about price. A cheap deal might not offer the speed or the service you are looking for.

You should also consider the contract length as well as whether you want an ‘unlimited package’ which means you don’t need to worry about download limits.

Think also about ‘add-on’ elements offered with many fibre broadband packages. These include TV subscriptions, mobile plans and other perks that could offer better value than your existing set-up.

Can I switch broadband providers at anytime?

You can switch your broadband provider at any time, but if you’re still in your contract period you might have to pay a fee to end your contract early.

If you’re not sure, check with your provider or dig out your contract to see how much time you have remaining on it.

If you do end up switching, don’t forget to make a note of when your new deal ends – this will serve as a reminder to yourself to compare prices again to make sure you’re still on the best deal.

Best fibre optic broadband providers

1. Virgin Media - 5/5 stars

Average download speed: 466Mbps

Average monthly cost: £42

Complaints per 100k subscribers: 60

Our verdict

The 54% of homes eligible for Virgin Media’s cable broadband service can get some of the fastest broadband speeds available, and at 9p per Mbps (in other words, the average monthly cost divided by the average download speed), one of the best value services too.

Each tariff comes with the 11-antennae, dual-band Virgin Hub 3 router, or the Virgin Hub 4 version with its Gigabit tariff. Ofcom data puts Virgin Media bang on the national average for customer satisfaction.

2. BT - 5/5 stars

Average download speed: 448Mbps

Average monthly cost: £49.99

Complaints per 100k subscribers: 50

Our verdict

BT offers full-fibre tariffs with an average monthly cost of £49.99 and average speed of 448Mbps, giving you a cost-per-Mbps value of 11p. As with its standard fibre tariffs, the Stay Fast guarantee will get any speed issues resolved in 30 days or pay you £20 and allow you to exit your contract without penalty.

Ofcom’s 2020 Customer Satisfaction Tracker found 86% of BT customers were satisfied with its service.

3. EE - 5/5 stars

Average download speed: 448Mbps

Average monthly cost: £48.67

Complaints per 100k subscribers: 22

Our verdict

The mobile network cum broadband provider EE scores very highly for customer satisfaction, and with an average tariff price of £48.67 and average download speed of 448Mbps, it matches BT in value for money.

Each tariff comes with an EE Smart Hub router. The dual-band, seven-antennae hardware promises to manage connections intelligently and reach every room of your home.

4. Zen Internet - 5/5 stars

Average download speed: 450Mbps

Average monthly cost: £51.74

Complaints per 100k subscribers: Data not available

Our verdict

With speeds and prices to rival that of EE and BT in terms of value for money, Zen Internet is a strong contender. Tariffs start at £38.99 for speeds of 100Mbps and each come with a FRITZ!Box 7530 router that allows visitors to use your connection without having to share your wi-fi password.

Ofcom hasn’t published any customer satisfaction data for Zen Internet, but it scores well above average for broadband on TrustPilot at 4.1 stars.

5. TalkTalk - 4/5 stars

Average download speed: 272Mbps

Average monthly cost: £36

Complaints per 100k subscribers: 87

Our verdict

TalkTalk is the cheapest full fibre broadband provider on our list, but it does offer the lowest average speeds. Its two tariffs cost £32 and £40 per month respectively, and offer average speeds of up to 272Mbps. Subscribers get a D-Link router.

TalkTalk scored 78% in the overall satisfaction category of the Ofcom 2020 Customer Satisfaction Tracker, below the national average of 85%.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the difference between fibre and copper broadband?

Using the internet involves sending and receiving data from your computer or mobile device. Generally speaking, there are two main ways to transmit data: copper (often referred to as ADSL) or fibre optic cables (and sometimes a combination of the two). There’s also satellite and mobile transmission which we look at below.

When transmitted using copper telephone wires, data is translated into and sent as pulses of electricity. Copper is an excellent conductor with relatively low electrical resistance making it a good medium for sending and receiving data.

Data sent via fibre optic cables moves at the speed of light resistance-free. This makes transmission much faster than copper broadband.

Copper broadband can transmit data up to 24 Megabits per second (Mbps). In contrast, fibre broadband can reach speeds in excess of 1,000Mbps (1Gbps) making it 40 times faster.

A hybrid copper and fibre connection type known as Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC) uses fibre optics from an exchange to the nearest roadside cabinet and then copper cables to your home. Speeds are significantly faster than copper alone, topping out at around 80Mbps.

Fibre To The Home (FTTH) or Fibre To The Premises (FTTP), however, uses fibre optics all the way from the exchange to your home. This offers the fastest possible broadband connection with speeds possible in excess of 1Gbps.

What factors affect my broadband speed?

Other factors, as well as your connection, will determine your household’s broadband speed.

For example, wired connections may produce faster speeds than wireless ones. The more devices connected to your router, the slower your speed is likely to become.

Some factors are beyond your control. For example, the distance between your home and the cabinet affects copper or FTTC connections. Greater distance can mean slower speeds. Even the weather can affect copper cabling and cause problems.

Many broadband providers now offer speed guarantees. These pay compensation if your speed consistently falls below an agreed minimum. Customers are also allowed to leave contracts without penalty if things can’t be rectified.

What other types of broadband are there?

In addition to copper broadband, FTTC and FTTH/FTTP, there’s also satellite broadband and mobile broadband.

Satellite broadband uses the same technology used to receive satellite television like Sky. It can deliver download speeds of up to 300Mbps and is an alternative for people in rural areas where both conventional broadband and mobile broadband are too slow. It’s in something of a transitional period right now.

Mobile broadband is much more widely available and competitively priced. With the roll-out of 5G technology underway, average speeds are going to be climbing rapidly across the country. 4G connections offer download speeds of up to 100Mbps in ideal conditions, while 5G can theoretically offer speed greater than 700Mbps - that’s ten times faster than the average UK home broadband speed.

Will I need a different modem for fibre broadband?

If you’re upgrading from ADSL broadband to fibre broadband (FTTC or FTTH/FTTP), there’s an element of new gear that’s needed, but installation involves minimal disruption.

If you’re upgrading from FTTH/FTTP to FTTC, your master phone socket will need to be upgraded to an Optical Network Terminal (ONT). It’s a small white box that attaches to one of your interior walls close to a power socket. This is necessary to connect to the fibre cables that lead up to your property.

Does fibre broadband require a phone line?

FTTC and ADSL connections require a phone line because they use copper telephone cables to transmit data at least part of the way to its destination. FTTH/FTTP does not require a phone line since data is sent over fibre optic cables for its entire journey.

What does FTTN mean?

FTTN stands for Fibre To The Node, which essentially means the same as FTTC. Specifically, data is sent and received via fibre as far as your nearest roadside cabinet and copper telephone wires carry it from the cabinet to/from your home.

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