How fast do you want your broadband? It wasn't so long ago that ADSL was the newest technology on the block, promising 'up to 8Mbps' downstream data speeds over copper wires that were initially laid to carry voice calls.
Compared to dial-up, broadband felt super fast. It seemed almost magic. Even if we never received speeds anywhere near the advertised 8Mbps. Or 4Mbps. Or even 2Mbps. (Hence the 'up to'). But that was then.
That was before the explosion in web-connected laptops, smartphones, tablets, games consoles and smart TVs, and before we spent hours 'liking' status updates, streaming videos and working in the cloud. It all takes a toll on the average internet connection, especially if several devices are vying for bandwidth.
Broadband has desperately needed another boost. Since its commercial roll-out in 2000, ADSL technology has been pushed to its physical limits. ADSL2+ pushed the 'up to' speed to 24Mbps, although the real-world average is typically half this figure.
The problem is that the old copper telephone wires loop out from central exchanges. The further you live from the exchange, the greater the signal loss and the slower your ADSL connection becomes.
Faster internet connectivity requires a whole new infrastructure. Which is where fibre broadband comes in…
What is fibre broadband?
Fibre broadband replaces copper telephone wires with a network of fibre optic cable. Cut one of these cables open and you'll see that it's crammed with thin glass strands coated in plastic.
These strands are only slightly thicker than a human hair and they act like mirrors, enabling digital data to be pulsed along them using infrared laser light. While broadband speeds tail off as copper wire connections get longer, it doesn't matter how long a fibre optic cable is. There's no signal interference and little or no performance hit to endure.
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Consequently, today's fibre broadband is capable of delivering download speeds up to 330Mbps, with speeds perhaps reaching as high as 40Gbps at some point in the future (though don't get excited just yet: that's far away. Speeds right now are lower because each fibre optic strand must share its bandwidth between many homes).
This next-generation access (NGA) depends on two factors - how much you're prepared to pay and what type of fibre optic connection you have.
What are the types of fibre broadband?
There are essentially two main types of fibre broadband - FTTH (Fibre To The Home) and FTTC (Fibre To The Cabinet).
FTTH (Fibre To The Home) is the fastest form of fibre broadband available, because the fibre optic cable runs all the way from the exchange into your house. This fully optical connection is also known as FTTP (Fibre To The Premises). BT already offers an FTTP option, promising speeds of up to 330Mbps - 40 times faster than ADSL.
Unfortunately, the majority of homes in the UK aren't wired up for FTTH - it's expensive and disruptive to deploy. Which is why FTTC (Fibre To The Cabinet) or FTTK (Fibre To The Kerb) infrastructure is more widespread.
In this case, the fibre optic cabling only runs as far as your local junction box. Data travels the rest of the way over the old copper wiring. This means that there's some slowdown in the data speed, but the level of slowdown -depends on your home's distance from the junction box.
Who is offering fibre broadband?
There are two mass market implementations of FTTC networks in the UK - Virgin Media's HFC (Hybrid Fibre Coaxial)-based cable service and BT Infinity fibre broadband, which uses VDSL2 (Very high bitrate DSL).
BT Infinity uses an FTTC setup, with fibre connections running to a junction box that will be on, or very close to, the street where you live. The final stage, running from the junction box to your home, uses a VDSL connection over existing copper phone lines.
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Virgin too uses FTTC in most places. But it has some FTTP trials in addition to some bespoke business installations. Instead of using the old copper wires for the 'last mile' connection between the junction box and your home, Virgin uses its existing high-grade coaxial cable network, which can pipe data faster than copper wiring and with very little signal loss.
Many more ISPs use the growing fibre infrastructure to offer competing services. These include Sky Fibre, Plusnet, Talk Talk, EE and John Lewis.
Sky became the UK's second biggest ISP (having purchased O2 and BE's consumer broadband and fixed-line telephone service back in March).
How fast is fibre broadband?
Hop onto a comparison website such as uSwitch and you'll find fibre broadband packages that offer connections ranging from 30Mbps up to 120Mbps. BT Infinity packages have a top speed of 76Mbps, while Virgin's fibre connections peak at blistering speeds of 100-120Mbps. Let's put that in perspective. As Virgin Media website points out, 100Mbps can download:
- A 60MB music album in 6 seconds
- A 350MB TV show in 30 seconds
- A 1GB movie in 1.5 minutes
- A 4GB HD movie in 6 minutes
Of course, you might not get these top-end speeds. BT Infinity maxes out at 62.5Mbps in the area where we tested it, while the estimated ADSL broadband speed is a lowly 5.5Mbps. These ratings drop further during peak periods - especially 8pm to 10pm on weekdays.
The wide availability of superfast fibre connections have been directly responsible for a significant jump in the UK's average broadband speed. Ofcom reported that in 2008 the average as a lowly 3.6Mbps. Five years on, the average speed has risen to 14.7Mbps.
Fibre broadband also delivers speeds that are much closer to the advertised maximum speed. According to the same May 2013 Ofcom report, the average speed of an 'up to' 10Mbps cable connection in the UK was 9.3Mbps. Compare this to the speed of an 'up to 8Mbps' ADSL connection, which averaged only 3.3Mbps.
How can I get fibre broadband?
Between them, BT and Virgin provide fibre optic broadband connectivity to over 15 million UK homes, and this will increase as work on the two networks continues. BT Openreach predicts 66% coverage by 2015.
In the meantime, it's easy to check whether you can get fibre optic broadband where you live. Most providers have their own postcode checkers, but you can simplify the process using an independent one such as SamKnows, Cable and uSwitch. Just enter your postcode and phone number and you'll get a handy list of the services available in your area.
How do I choose the best fibre broadband?
Fibre broadband providers are fighting for customers. But it's not all about paying the lowest price or getting a free wireless router. Some services offer unlimited downloads, while others are throttled by a usage cap.
There are other incentives - BT Infinity typically adds free weekend calls and access to its new BT Sport channels, while Virgin has triple-play cable TV, phone and broadband bundles, and EE throws in 2-for-1 cinema tickets every Wednesday.
Of course, if you live in a more rural area, you might not have access to fibre broadband at all. BT Openreach claims that the cost of upgrading the network in areas with only a relatively small number of people will generally be too high. But there could be an alternative.
In the future, the current FTTC and FTTH infrastructure could be joined by FTTA (Fibre To The Antenna), which works by multiplexing wireless signals and aggregating them into a single fibre-like 'air interface'. Until then, ADSL broadband will have to suffice.
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