ADSL vs Fibre broadband: what do they mean and which do I need?

There are three common types of fixed-line broadband in the UK. ADSL and fibre are the two most common types of internet connection and serve most homes.

Fibre broadband is fast becoming the de facto choice for new broadband connections thanks to its fast speeds and ever increasing availability. But it's still only available in around 90% of UK households. Standard ADSL is still the only option for those living in areas where population is sparse; areas where fibre has not yet been enabled by Openreach, who manage the UK’s phone networks.

The third option is cable broadband, which you get in certain cabled areas. Usually, but not always, this is provided by Virgin Media which runs most of the cable networks in the UK. Cable’s big boon is the consistency of the speeds, which don’t degrade with distance. But less than two thirds of the country can get it.

Below, we tell you more about the different types of internet connection. Whichever you want, you can make sure you get the best prices with our broadband deals comparison page.

What is ADSL broadband? 

Let’s talk about ADSL first, which is still the most regularly available type of broadband and works using a standard copper telephone line. ADSL stands for Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line. You might sometimes hear broadband referred to as DSL which, well, we reckon you can guess what that means.

ADSL can be unreliable in terms of speed – what speed you can get depends very much on the distance you live from your telephone exchange. And pure distance isn’t always a great guide, as it depends on the distance the phone cables cover rather than an ‘as the crow flies’ measure of direct distance. While Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can provide an estimate, they can’t always be accurate.

ADSL accounts for around half of the UK’s broadband lines, though this number will decrease over the next few years as fibre takes over.

It may be slower than fibre optic, but the resounding benefit of ADSL is the price. Standard ADSL still has the monopoly on the best cheap broadband deals. You can usually sign up for a package that will cost you less than £20 per month.

What is fibre broadband? 

Fibre broadband is better, faster and more reliable than standard ADSL internet and is delivered to homes and businesses through fibre optic cables. It’s growing and the number of connected lines stands at around 8 million users in the UK. Pretty much every major internet service provider now offers fibre, including BT, Sky and TalkTalk.

Most connections connect to your home via the phone network cabinet in your area (those green boxes you see at the side of the road). The fibre comes from the telephone exchange and terminates at the cabinet, with the connection into your home provided by your copper phone line as with ADSL. Effectively fibre brings the exchange much closer to your home. This system is called FTTC, or Fibre To The Cabinet. Most FTTC fibre connections offer speeds ‘up to' 38Mbps (4.75MB per second) or 76Mbps (9.5MB per second).

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The future of fibre broadband connections

Increasingly we’re going to see a new system implemented, with direct fibre connections into our homes – relatively few of these connections exist currently and most are from Virgin Media. The current number is thought to be well under a million.

This is called FTTP, or Fibre To The Premises, where promised speeds can hit 1Gbps. 

Regulator Ofcom wants these faster connections to come as a result of a large-scale rollout over the coming years and for everyone to be able to get 10Mbps at the least by 2020. BT has said that it will connect 2 million homes with full fibre by 2020, while Virgin is talking about around 4 million extra full-fibre connections. 

For around half of UK homes, the final connection between the home and the network is a ‘drop wire’ from a telegraph pole. 

Ofcom says that customers who currently wish to get fibre connections but who connect via a pole are quite restricted - often costing a lot of money to resolve. One solution may to replace these cables for all providers with fibre when required. Ofcom also wants all providers to be able to lay fibre in BT’s ducts alongside BT itself. 

Network provider Openreach is also experimenting with a halfway-house technology, called G.fast, which enables the speeding up of existing fibre lines to around 330Mbps.