Standard broadband vs fibre broadband vs Full Fibre

Dan Howdle | February 13th, 2024

Broadband vs fibre

There are a few different types of broadband around, and unless you work in the business or have an interest in the technology, you may well be unclear as to what the differences are.

That's where we come in. In this guide we're going to take a look at ADSL (we'll come to what that means in a sec), fibre broadband and full fibre broadband. What the key differences are and above all, which one is right for you.

Key differences: an overview

Standard broadband (ADSL) is delivered via your copper telephone line. The problem with copper when used as a medium through which to transmit data, is that it has a limited range before things become very slow indeed. This is not a problem shared by fibre broadband. ADSL broadband is therefore considerably slower at delivering data than fibre broadband generally is.

An important definition here is fibre broadband. Because fibre broadband really only applies to FTTC or 'fibre to the cabinet' broadband, and to some extent broadband offered by Virgin Media. FTTC is broadband that uses fibre only as far as the green cabinet, but slower copper wires from the cabinet to your home. It has maximum speeds of around 70Mbps with most providers. Virgin Media is slightly different because it has unique cabling that, while categorising it more 'FFTC' than full fibre (more on that next), does allow Virgin Media broadband specifically to run much much faster than competitors without a full fibre network.

Full fibre, finally, is where the entire network is fibre optic, including the span from the cabinet to your home. The sky is the limit with full fibre, but right now you'll see the fastest Full Fibre packages typically listed between 900Mbps and 944Mbps. Some altnets (alternative networks, which typically operate in a small geographical area) offer up to 3Gbps, but you'll be very lucky if you can get one where you live. Likewise, any Full Fibre provider is currently available to only around 57% of households according to Ofcom. When it comes to 'gigabit' broadband then, you have a better chance with Virgin Media (around 60% availability).

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Speed: Fibre is faster, Full Fibre is fastest

There is no arguing this statement – fibre is faster. The old copper phone lines that carry standard broadband services are simply not capable of carrying data as quickly as the newer fibre optic cables.

Standard broadband had previously always been described as 'up to 17Mbps'. However, with the introduction of the Advertising Standards Agency ruling that in 2018broadband providers must only advertise speeds that are accessible by at least 50% of their customers, standard broadband is now, on average, advertised as 11Mbps – far closer to what most people can expect to receive.

Equally, fibre speeds were previously advertised as up to 38Mbps and up to 76Mbps. Now, the averages advertised are more like 35Mbps and 60Mbps, with clear variances from provider to provider. In general, the actual speeds you are likely to receive are much closer to the advertised average. The exception to this is Virgin Media whose average speeds can be even higher than those advertised. This is due to the cabling in Virgin's own network.

Full Fibre meanwhile will take you all the way up to 944Mbps with some providers, though as previously stated, availability is still a bit of a lottery.

So what do the Mbps figures actually mean in reality? Well, let's use the example of downloading a full HD movie, which will be around 5GB or so. If you're getting around 17Mbps from a standard broadband line, that'll download in just over an hour.

However, if you could get 60Mbps fibre, the download time comes down to around 20 minutes. If you're able to get the newer, ultrafast services that offer speeds up to 900Mbps, you could download that full movie just 44 seconds! As a little fun bit of context to show how far tech has come in the last few decades, downloading that same movie on an old-school dial-up modem connection would take just shy of two weeks.

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Does fibre and Full Fibre broadband cost more?

It doesn't have to, no. In fact, many entry-level fibre and Full Fibre deals can be comparable in price to the technology that preceded them, so it's certainly worth shopping around to see if you could be getting better speeds without spending much more – or maybe even for less.

Speeds averaging 36Mbps to 63Mbps (standard fibre) are very affordable these days, but you will often find much faster Full Fibre packages are similarly priced because providers want customers who can get it to be using the new technology.

Availability – can I get it?

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A 2023 report by Ofcom states that an impressive 97% of UK premises are able to get superfast broadband (30Mbps or quicker). At the other end of the spectrum, the report states that “The number of properties (both residential and commercial) that cannot receive a decent broadband service from a fixed line stands at just 0.2%.”

In terms of faster options, that same Ofcom report indicates that Gigabit (1000Mbps) broadband is currently available to 70% of UK premises.

Usage restrictions

All broadband packages sold in the UK are unlimited. You will never hit a data limit. However, you may be limited with some 4G5G broadband options or if you have no other option available than satellite broadband.

Which is best for you?

With fibre broadband now available to the vast majority of UK households, and prices for Full Fibre falling, it's hard to imagine many cases where Full Fibre isn't simply the best option. In fact, most providers have stopped offering ADSL except in the narrow cases where nothing else is available (these will be isolated, rural homes for the most part), and 'fibre' (up to 63Mbps) will be shown the door over the next several years.

If you only use your connection for web browsing and email, the faster speeds might not make enough of a difference to justify any increase in cost perhaps, but in most typical modern households where streaming HD movies, shows or games are common occurrences, better speeds make everything quicker and smoother, making it hard to recommend sticking with traditional broadband if fibre is a viable alternative where you live. Which, based on recent coverage data, it almost certainly is.

In terms of faster packages, it's simply a case of weighing up exactly where the sweet spot is for you based on your own needs. If you're constantly downloading 100GB+ modern videogames or 4K media on multiple devices, you'll see noticeable improvements all the way up to the top-end 1000Mbps lines, so it becomes a case of striking a balance between cost and convenience.

The best broadband option for you will usually be the fastest affordable deal for you that isn't overkill in terms of bandwidth and data speeds according to your own usage levels.

Most customers with traditional broadband packages may find that their provider offers faster fibre options and in some cases, the jump to fibre might not even be an expense. Check to see whether you could be getting faster speeds today, because fibre is, in almost all cases, the way forward.

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