You've likely heard of fibre broadband and know that it's faster than standard ADSL broadband, but you might not know how it works or what all the different fibre options are. Read on to find out more about fibre broadband.
What is fibre-optic broadband?
Fibre-optic broadband refers to a type of superfast broadband and takes its name from the type of cables that are used to transmit data.
Unlike the majority of broadband connections in the UK — which use telephone lines or mobile networks — fibre-optic broadband is transferred along special optical fibre cables underground. These wires are made of glass or plastic, so signals move a lot faster than they do along copper cables, which translates to connection speeds that dwarf those of traditional broadband.
How does fibre-optic broadband get to my house?
There are several different ways fibre-optic broadband reaches your home. Depending upon what connection type you have, the speed of your fibre broadband connection can vary between 36Mbps and 362Mbps, or even 900Mbps, depending upon your area. The types of fibre available are:
FTTH (fibre to the home) — Fibre-optic cables run all the way to the outside of your house. This is the quickest service, delivering speeds of up to 900Mbps, but it's not widely available.
FTTB (fibre to the building/basement) — Fibre-optic cables run all the way to your premises, which is why this is sometimes called FTTP (fibre to the premises). If you live in a flat in a large building, the fibre terminates at the building rather than your individual living space. It still provides very fast speeds.
FTTC (fibre to the cabinet) — Fibre-optic cables run all the way to the cabinet in the street, which can be up to 300m away. The cabinet is connected to your home with regular copper wires, which results in a loss of speed. This is the most common connection.
FTTN (fibre to the node) — Roughly the same as above, only the street cabinet can be further away — up to several km away — with the rest of the distance to your house being covered by regular copper wiring.
Not all fibre broadband is created equal.
Although you can expect speeds well in excess of a standard ADSL broadband service even with a cheaper fibre-optic service, there can be a significant difference between the quality of service and speeds you get from different providers. The reason for this is due to the method used by fibre providers to deliver broadband for the last leg of its journey from the telephone cabinet into your home.
The Openreach network, formerly owned by BT, uses fibre-optic cables to deliver broadband from your telephone exchange to the cabinet on your street, but then relies on copper wire to deliver broadband from the cabinet into your home. It's this reliance on less efficient copper wire for the so-called 'final mile' that slows down your connection.
The Openreach network is used by a number of large providers, including Sky, TalkTalk and Plusnet.
Of the major providers, Virgin is the only one that does not use Openreach. Instead of using Openreach's infrastructure, Virgin invested heavily in its own fibre broadband network, which delivers average broadband speeds as high as 362Mbps, depending upon location.
Virgin Media's cable broadband network also uses fibre-optic cables to deliver broadband to the cabinet on your street, but from here, it uses coaxial cables to get the broadband into your home. Although coaxial cables are still made of copper, they're much more efficient at transferring data than standard copper cables, making Virgin Media's cable broadband service generally faster than Openreach fibre.
Can other providers use Virgin's cables?
Unlike the Openreach network, Virgin doesn't share its cable network. Initially, the Openreach network was a public infrastructure which was then privatised. Virgin's network has always been owned privately, so they don't currently share their cable network with other providers.
You can find out more about Virgin Media fibre-optic broadband at our dedicated Virgin Media page.
What difference does a faster connection make to the user?
If you're a light user who mainly uses the internet to read e-mails, check Facebook or watch YouTube, you might not notice much of a difference. If you use the internet for media, however, you'll definitely notice the faster speeds.
A faster connection means you can download movies, games and music faster, enjoy seamless streaming of HD films, and have a much better online gaming experience. It is, to borrow a phrase, how the internet was supposed to be.
For more information about speeds and download times, check out our download speed calculator.
Does fibre-optic broadband require a phone line?
Because fibre-optic broadband uses special cables to transmit data, you don't technically need a phone line.
That being said, there aren't many fibre broadband packages that don't include a phone line. In fact, Virgin Media is the only major provider that offers cable broadband without line rental.
Fibre-optic broadband in the UK
In the UK, optical fibre isn't available everywhere just yet. Fibre-to-the-cabinet is available to over 95% of the UK, but full fibre isn't as widely available.
Fibre broadband through Openreach is widely available across the UK. For most customers, the top average speed Openreach fibre can provide is 67Mbps; however, if you're lucky enough to live in an area where BT has rolled out its super-fast "fibre-to-the-premises" service, known as BT Ultrafast, you can get speeds much higher than that.
You can read more about BT Superfast at our dedicated BT Superfast page.
The benefits of fibre-optic broadband
- A fast, sustained and reliable connection which results from transmission through fibre-optic material rather than ordinary copper wires.
- Options to receive cable TV, phone deals and excellent product bundles with triple-play packages.
- Lightning speeds of up to 900Mbps.
Compare all our fibre deals at our dedicated fibre-optic broadband page.