When ADSL broadband first appeared, more than ten years ago, its performance seemed amazing.
Times change, though, and displaying simple text and graphics is no longer enough. We want to watch TV online, upload large files, stream video, and on multiple devices - a PC, laptop, iPod touch maybe, all using the same internet connection.
Basic "up to 8Mbps" ADSL broadband is no longer good enough, then. And while you may be able to sign up for an "up to 20/ 24Mbps" ADSL package, if it's available in your area, don't expect that to make much of a difference.
According to Ofcom's recent report, most of these deliver less than half the headline speed, typically averaging 8 to 9 Mbps.
Why? The problem is the transmission medium, our copper phone wires. The signal is prone to interference, and it degrades significantly over time, meaning the further away you are from the exchange, the slower and more unreliable your connection becomes.
We may not have to put up with this unhappy situation much longer, though, because a new technology which minimises these issues, and so greatly improves performance, is increasingly becoming available all across the UK: fibre broadband.
What is fibre broadband?
Fibre broadband sees the old twisted-pair copper wires replaced by fibre optic strands, each the width of a human hair. Data is transmitted through these using pulses of infra-red laser light, rather than electricity, and overall the scheme has many advantages.
There's no need to worry about interference from any electrical equipment nearby, for instance - it won't affect the connection.
The signal doesn't degrade over distance, either. It doesn't matter how long the cable is, performance won't be reduced.
That performance is just about as future-proof as you're likely to see, with speeds perhaps reaching as much as 40 GBit/s at some point in the future (though don't get excited just yet: that's far away, speeds right now are much lower, and each fibre optic strand must share its bandwidth between many homes).
And there are many less obvious benefits, too. It's far more difficult to snoop on a fibre optic connection than a conventional copper line, for example. And the cables won't conduct power surges from nearby lightning strikes, either, so there's less chance of your equipment being damaged in a storm.
Down sides? You'll need a new modem, and probably a router, but that's no surprise when moving to a new technology. And most fibre broadband accounts will include suitable bundled hardware, anyway, so this won't be a hassle for most people.
It's easy to see why BT used fibre as the basis for their new broadband service, BT Infinity, then. But to understand what to expect then we'll need to take a closer look at how the technology works.
DIFFERENT KIT: Fibre broadband accounts like BT Infinity usually come with a new modem and router
What are the types of fibre broadband?
There are two major types of fibre broadband. The first connects directly to your home, and is known as FFTH (Fibre To The Home) or FTTP (Fibre To The Premises). This delivers the best performance as it's optical from one end to the other.
FTTH is also the most expensive, though, which is probably why BT opted for a more basic alternative, FTTC (Fibre To The Cabinet), for most of the Infinity network.
Indeed, there are two mass market implementations of FTTC networks in the UK – Virgin Media's HFC (Hybrid Fibre Coaxial) based cable service and BT's VDSL2 based BT Infinity fibre broadband. Virgin uses FTTC in most places, but has some FTTP trials as well as some bespoke business installations, according to the company.
BT Infinity sees fibre connections running to a cabinet on, or very close to the street where you live. And the final stage then uses a VDSL (Very high bitrate DSL) connection running across your existing copper phone lines.
FTTC is a hybrid solution and has a drawback or two. Lightning strikes may still create dangerous power surges after all, for instance. And more seriously, switching back to copper cuts the performance you'll get, and means this may vary according to your location (if not as much as before, because the FTTC cabinet will be closer than your existing exchange).
Instead of using copper for the "last mile" connection between the cabinet and your home, Virgin uses it's existing high-grade coaxial cable network.
BT Infinity is able to offer "up to 40 Mbps" download speed, while uploading at up to 10Mbps. And while you probably no longer trust these advertised speeds, Infinity comes far closer to achieving these than regular ADSL. Virgin offers speeds of up to 100Mbps in some areas.
BRIGHT LIGHTS: BT Infinity has been featured in major ad campaigns
Plusnet reports that "74 per cent of customers who previously experienced speeds of 2-12Mbp/s say they now experience speeds of 30Mbp/s or more" on the new Fibre service, while Ofcom's latest figures suggest the average BT "up to 40Mbps" speeds, even at peak times, are somewhere around 33Mbps - that's some ten times the speed of a typical "up to 8Mbps" connection.
And this is just the start. VDSL can theoretically support more than twice that speed, so there's room for improvement in future, and when BT finally extend cable to individual homes then performance will leap again. Which is great, although it's perhaps best not to get ahead of ourselves - you'll need regular BT Infinity to be available in your area, first.
How to get fibre broadband
If Virgin Media has cable services available in your area, you can also get Virgin Media fibre optic broadband - enter your postcode to find out.
BT has been upgrading exchanges with its FTTC technology since 2009, and the company recently reported that Infinity was now available at more than five million premises (around 20% of the market). The rollout is ongoing, and BT Openreach is currently predicting 66% coverage by 2015.
Sounds good, but it may not help you much if you're in a rural area. Which is unfortunate, as of course you're in the most need of an upgrade. Openreach say the cost of upgrading the network in areas with only a relatively small number of people will generally be too high, though, warning villagers "the reality is that it could well take a government subsidy to bring super-fast broadband to you".
There are no fixed rules here, though. Openreach has upgraded their network in a few rural locations; and living in cities is no guarantee of success, as most people still don't have access to the latest fibre technology. So the best way to discover what's available is to use one of the many Broadband Availability checkers on the web.
NEW HUB: BT's Infinity Hub allows you to share the benefits of your connection by Wi-Fi or Ethernet
SamKnows is probably the best all-round checker - just enter your phone number or postcode and it'll display details on Infinity (or BT FTTC as it's called here), and any other services available in your area. You can even compare them in a click or two.
We have spotted the occasional error with SamKnows, though, so once you've got a general idea it's best to confirm you can get a particular service at the provider's side. With BT, for instance, you'd use the Infinity Availability Checker.
CAN YOU GET IT?: Just choose your region on the map and BT will tell you more about the local availability of Infinity
Access to BT's fibre network is also resold through other ISPs, with their own accounts and conditions. Plusnet, for instance, offers a basic fibre account priced at just £16.49, or gives you McAfee online protection for free if you purchase their enhanced Fibre Extra account.
Liked this? Then check out 4G mobile broadband and LTE explained
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