Fibre Optic Broadband

Broadband provided by fibre-optic cable as far as a street cabinet or your home

Fibre Optic Broadband Buyers Guide

The hottest evolution in broadband technology gives you blisteringly fast speeds, allowing you to stream, game and surf on your laptops, tablets and smartphones without compromise.

But what exactly is fibre optic broadband, and how do you know if it’s right for you? In this guide we’ll give you everything you need to get up to speed.

What is fibre optic broadband?

At its simplest level, it's a broadband supply that replaces copper telephone cables with fibre optics. A fibre optic cable is made up of very thin strands of glass which laser light is beamed down at incredibly fast speeds (quite literally the speed of light!) to carry data.

Fibre optic broadband brings superfast, ultrafast or even hyperfast internet access to your home. It is significantly quicker than standard phoneline broadband, with performance more than ten times faster. In some areas fibre optic options can be hundreds of times faster than copper alternatives.

How does it work?

Fibre optic broadband uses fibre optic cables to transmit data, rather than the copper wires of a telephone network. These are able to carry more data at higher speeds, and are much more efficient at carrying that data.

A broadband signal is carried between your home and the local telephone exchange. Most broadband providers use the Openreach network. Openreach is the BT Group company responsible for the street cabinets, exchanges and telephone cables.

This network is based on copper wires, and when these are used the broadband signal suffers from attenuation. This means that the signal degrades the further it travels. In other words, the further you are from your nearest telephone exchange, the slower your internet connection will be.

This is the reason why many households rarely achieve the quoted speeds for their traditional broadband package. Fibre optic cables are not affected by this.

Is it compatible with my computer?

Other than the vastly improved speeds, you won’t notice any difference between fibre and standard phoneline broadband.

It will work with all your existing computers, smartphones, and other hardware, and doesn’t require any special software. Your fibre broadband provider will supply you with a fibre-capable router that will be able to handle the protocols and speeds needed to use your new connection.

If it uses its own cables, do I still need a phoneline?

Many people no longer use their landline phone, but need to keep the line installed to deliver their internet access. Since fibre optic broadband doesn’t use the copper phone wires, the prospect of getting rid of the line — and the rental attached to it — may be pretty tempting.

Unfortunately, in most cases you won’t be able to. There are different types of fibre optic broadband, and the provider and package you choose determines the type you get. The most common type of fibre broadband, FTTC, is still tied to the phoneline, so you'll still have to pay for line rental, even if you don't use your phone for calls.

What are the different types of fibre optic broadband?

The three main types of fibre optic broadband are:

  • Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC) - FTTC is a kind of hybrid part-fibre technology where the fibre optic cables run from the telephone exchange to your local telecoms cabinet — the green box at the end of your street. Many cabinets will have a 'Fibre broadband available here' sticker on them where it is available. The connection from the cabinet to your home is via the standard twisted pair copper telephone wire. The distance of this latter section is usually quite short, so attenuation is considerably less and faster protocols can be used (VDSL2 vs ADSL2+). There is still slowdown with distance, but it's distance from the street cabinet rather than from the exchange, those closest to their cabinet can enjoy speeds of up to 76Mb download and up to 19.5Mb upload. Most of the major fibre broadband providers offer FTTC, using the Openreach network. These include BT Infinity, Sky Fibre and TalkTalk Fibre.
  • DOCSIS 3 - Virgin Media operates a variation on the part-fibre arrangement, technically known as HFC (Hybrid Fibre-Coaxial) with DOCSIS 3 technology. Here the fibre connection runs as far as your nearest Virgin-owned cabinet, and the connection between the cabinet and your home is via a coaxial cable. This is heavy duty cable originally intended to supply analogue cable television signals rather than just voice telephone calls, as such it's faster and less susceptible to attenuation than twisted pair telephone wires. Virgin Media would usually be able to offer their fastest speeds to all customers, if you're in a Virgin Media area you should be able to get the fastest speeds of up to 152Mb download and up to 12Mb upload
  • Fibre To The Home (FTTH) - FTTH — also called FTTP (for Fibre to the Premises) or FTTB (for Fibre to the Building) — could be described as ‘full-fibre’, as the fibre optic cables are used for the entire length of the connection. It travels from the telephone exchange to a box that needs to be installed on an outside wall or in the basement of your home or building. The final part of the connection — from the external box to your devices — is via either copper wire or coaxial cable. Because the distance is so short, attenuation is virtually non-existent. Hyperoptic and DirectSave are among the providers that offer FTTH, the former at speeds of up to 1Gb for both downloads and uploads. If you're covered by a FTTH supplier then it's likely that you'll be able to access the very fastest speeds they offer.

Does the type of cables used matter?

FTTH, where the fibre cables run right to the building, is the preferred option for overall performance. Coverage in the UK is growing, but generally limited to select urban areas, often only serving appartment buildings or new build estates due to the lower cost of installation.

For the hybrid part-fibre options, DOCSIS 3 coaxial cable — as offered by Virgin Media — is better than the copper wires of the Openreach providers, since it doesn't suffer from the same loss of signal when carried over the distances used, but if you're near to your Openreach street cabinet then FTTC can compete with Virgin's mid-range download speeds, or even beat their best upload speeds.

You'll only be able to do away with your landline telephone if you opt for a FTTH or DOCSIS 3 provider.

Do I need fibre optic broadband?

Fibre optic broadband is faster, and offers more consistent performance than a standard phoneline connection. 

Whether you need it depends on how you use the internet. For casual browsing you’ll notice a small improvement in the speed that websites load, but will gain minimal benefit for things like email or Facebook.

The benefits of fibre optic broadband are best seen for heavier use.

  • It's perfect for all the family - From the smart TV in the living room, to the laptop in the office and the games console in the bedroom, every member of the family can get their gadgets online with no compromise in either speed or performance.
  • No more buffering - If you’re catching up with your favourite shows on iPlayer, or having a video chat over Face Time, fibre optic broadband gives you a seamlessly smooth connection with no buffering or interruption.
  • Lightning fast downloads - Downloading massive files becomes a breeze with fibre optic broadband. Over a typical 152Mb connection you can download BluRay-quality HD movie in around 10 minutes. An 8Mb phoneline broadband connection will take around three and a half hours.
  • Great for gaming - The reduced lag and latency from a fibre optic connection gives you the fastest and most responsive online gaming performance. The fast download speeds are ideal for getting the latest game updates too.
  • Faster uploads - You won't just see the benefits when downloading — fibre broadband offers significantly faster upload speeds, too. Whether you're screen-sharing video games, uploading movie clips to YouTube, or just moving your photo library or music collection to the cloud, you'll gain a major performance boost. FTTC is typically faster than Virgin Media's uploads, with upload speeds up to 19.5Mb, while full-fibre FTTH providers usually offer considerably faster uploads, providers like Hyperoptic even offer a fully symmetric service with uploads and downloads running at their full up to 1Gb speed!

Convinced? Check out the fibre optic broadband options below!

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What are the downsides?

There are no major downsides, but there are a few points you’ll need to consider when shopping for fibre optic broadband deals.

  • Price - As a relatively young technology that's required a great deal of investment to rollout across the country, fibre optic broadband is more expensive than standard phoneline broadband, and if you want the fastest speeds then you'll usually pay higher prices. You’ll need to weigh up the increased cost against the massive performance benefits you will receive, and decide if you need a provider's very fastest product or if a mid-range fibre product might allow you to do everything you need.
  • Availability - Around 80% of UK homes currently have access to some form of fibre optic broadband, and rural areas are least likely to be covered. A Government-assisted program is set to increase coverage to 95% by the end of 2017.
  • Line length - The most common type of hybrid part-fibre broadband, FTTC, still relies on standard telephone lines from the street cabinet to the home, which still experience attenuation and slow downs with distance. Some customers will achieve speeds considerably slower than the advertised maximum, but still faster than standard broadband. As most streets were connected to the telephone nextwork before broadband was invented, you may not be connected to your nearest street cabinet and may have considerably slower FTTC speeds than nearby homes. A minority of customers may even find that FTTC speeds are slower than standard broadband, or even too slow to offer the service at all.
  • Installation - Unless you live in a new build property with a faceplate pre-installed, Fibre to the Home broadband requires an engineer to come to your home to install the necessary hardware. This can take several hours and may be expensive.
  • Contract length - While there are usually no contract options for standard phoneline broadband, it's relatively rare to be able to sign up for fibre without committing yourself to a 12 or 18 month contract. Watch out for long contract lengths, especially if you know you will soon be on the move. It can be worth checking if you can get the same deal in the areas you may move to so you can transfer your supply if you are still in contract.

Where can I get it?

All the major broadband providers in the UK offer a version of fibre optic broadband.

Virgin Media provides DOCSIS 3 broadband through its own hybrid part-fibre network, and is able to offer higher speeds than many of its rivals using FTTC. You also don’t need a phoneline of any kind to use this service, although offers may mean that taking Virgin's phone service works out as cheaper.

Most of the remaining larger suppliers offer FTTC via the Openreach network. These include BT Infinity, Sky Fibre, TalkTalk Fibre and Plusnet Fibre.

There’s also a small number of local fibre optic broadband providers using FTTH networks. These include DirectSave and Hyperoptic. Their networks are growing daily with Hyperoptic especially expanding their coverage into new buildings and new cities every month.

What is the history and future of fibre broadband?

Over the last five years, fibre optic broadband has revolutionised internet speeds across the UK. Over 80% of homes and businesses can sign up for speeds of at least 30Mb, and often much faster. By the end of 2017, coverage will be close to universal.

It has also sparked renewed competition among broadband providers. BT and Virgin Media are set to try and squeeze even more speed from their existing infrastructure. 

BT has already completed initial trials of its technology that is able to deliver download speeds of up to 800Mb and uploads of up to 200Mb, using a combination of fibre and copper wire. The company is expected to begin deploying the service by 2017, pending the results of two pilots.

Other providers are also working to increase the rollout of full-fibre, FTTH services. Sky and TalkTalk recently entered into a joint venture with CityFibre to build the first city-wide FTTH network, in York. 

This is likely to be repeated elsewhere, with TalkTalk already having discussed its plans to bring FTTH to more 10 million homes nationwide.

With developments of both new and old technologies moving at such a great pace, it won't be long before ultrafast broadband, of 100Mb or more, is within reach of almost every home in the UK.