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Standard ADSL broadband vs fibre broadband

By Dan Howdle | Tuesday, June 30th 2020

There are a few different types of broadband around, and unless you work in the business or tend to be on the more technically literate end of the general public, chances are you're unsure 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) and fibre broadband. What the key differences are and above all, which one is right for you.

Standard and fibre 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 it has a limited range before things become very slow indeed. This is not a problem shared by fibre broadband, whose range is technically unlimited. ADSL broadband is therefore considerably slower at delivering data than fibre broadband generally is.

The fastest widely available fibre options are around ten times faster than the standard broadband speeds most experience, but there are also bespoke fibre networks such as Hyperoptic which, while currently fairly limited in availability, offer speeds many times faster again for those who really like data and are willing to pay a premium to bathe in it.

Believe it or not, the price difference between fibre and ADSL is pretty slim these days, despite the obvious benefits of choosing the former. Fibre should really be the first choice for just about anyone unless they have a good reason to opt for ADSL, such as fibre being unavailable where they live.

Speed – fibre is faster

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 has previously always been described as 'up to 17Mbps'. However, with the introduction of the new Advertising Standards Agency ruling that broadband 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 are in fact even higher than those advertised. This is due to the cabling in Virgin's own network.

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, the download time comes down to around 20 minutes. And if you're able to get in on newer services that offer speeds up to 350Mbps, you could download that full movie in a little over three minutes. 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. Thank goodness for technology, eh?

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Does fibre broadband cost more than standard broadband?

It doesn't have to, no. In fact, many entry-level fibre deals (and indeed some faster options) can be comparable in price to standard broadband packages, 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 on an entry-level fibre package are generally affordable these days, although you'll naturally end up paying more if you want to go over that cap and enjoy ultrafast speeds. Prices are continuing to fall for fibre connections, with some providers, such as Vodafone, now only offering fibre.

Of course, if you want to be among the early adopters of insanely fast 1Gbps+ lines then yes, you're going to find yourself paying for the privilege at this point. But as technology and coverage catches up, expect even these kinds of top-end options to become both more affordable and more widely available.

Availability – can I get it?

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A 2019 report by Ofcom, reissued in March 2020, states that an impressive 95% of UK premises are able to get superfast broadband (30Mbps or quicker). At the other end of the spectrum, only a meagre 189,000 homes are stuck with speeds below 10Mbps, and coverage is improving further still all the time.

In terms of faster options, that same Ofcom report indicates that full fibre broadband is only currently available to 10% of UK premises, although there are providers using their own networks who can boast significantly better coverage rates than that – Virgin Media, for instance, now covers around 60% of the country, with its reach growing steadily.

Generally speaking, most people living in urban areas should be able to enjoy speeds averaging 60Mbps as the Openreach network used by most broadband providers covers around 90% of the country. Faster options are typically limited to in and around larger cities and towns right now, but as we say, coverage is only going to keep getting better – expect faster options to become available in your area in the coming months and years, if you don't already have access to them.

Usage restrictions

This is something to look out for when choosing a new broadband package, as it's a prominent factor in speeds sometimes coming in lower than advertised or deals not being as great as they seem. For starters, some cheaper packages might have caps on how much data can be used each month and in a household that downloads large videogames or streams HD media, it can be easy to exceed such caps in just a day or two.

Generally speaking, it's better to go for an unlimited option unless you really don't use a lot of data, but even so-called 'unlimited' packages aren't always what they seem.

This is because some providers impose traffic management at peak times or on users deemed to be overusing bandwidth, which can slow down connections for everyone else. See what each provider has to say about this when you browse their available options, as some will specifically mention no traffic management – something you'll want to be the case if you frequently use a lot of data. Conversely, some specialist providers can actually offer priority traffic to guarantee faster speeds, but that kind of privilege naturally comes at a premium.

Which is best for you? Fibre or standard broadband?

With fibre broadband now available to the vast majority of UK households, and prices falling more or less in line with traditional broadband in many cases, it's hard to imagine many cases where fibre isn't simply the better option.

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 downloading or streaming large 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 500Mbps 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 which 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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