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What is fibre optic broadband?

If you typed something approaching ‘get me a fibre broadband deal’ in a search engine to get here, the question ‘What is fibre optic broadband?’ is somewhat paradoxical. That is to say, in order to get here you’d have to know what it is, so why would you then need to be told?

Well, hold onto your bootstraps because we promise you: In this shortish section there will be things you don’t know. We’ll try to keep things relevant to the act of finding a broadband deal, comparing both the technology and pricing to non-fibre ADSL broadband. You never know – you may even find you don’t need fibre at all.

How does ADSL (copper, non-fibre) broadband work?

We’ve had copper phone lines running via telegraph poles and through underground ducting since 1878. Copper’s great for carrying a voice signal because the human brain is terrifically good at filtering meaning even in the face of horrible white noise or interference. Machines, though – machines need that signal to be clean to make head or tail of it.

ADSL broadband – the sort you see advertised at ‘up to’ 17Mbps – arrives through your telephone line using that old copper infrastructure. Without getting too technical, the longer the line (the further you are from the cabinet) the more the signal degrades. Data is sent through these wires on multiple concurrent frequencies, and the number of frequencies that can make it cleanly through reduces over distance – the frequency ‘bandwidth’ narrows. And that’s why we need fibre. We need to fundamentally change the material the cabling is made from in order to avoid these distance problems.

How does fibre optic broadband work?

Fibre optic broadband, by contrast, runs along fibre optic cabling. Fibre optic cabling consists of long, thin strands of glass through which light can travel, even around corners. These are generally wrapped in a sleeve that’s mirrored on the inside to prevent loss of said light.

There is no degradation of light the same way there is with electrical impulses sent over copper. Theoretically, you could have a fibre cable running from here to Pluto and still get superfast internet there – albeit, being limited by the speed of light, a rather slow response time of around five hours (the time it takes light to travel from Earth to Pluto).

All widely available fibre broadband in the UK is not 100% fibre. BT’s Openreach network is fibre up to your local cabinet, then relies on the old copper bi-wire to reach your house, sometimes through underground ducting, sometimes via overhead telegraph poles. This type of fibre is often referred to as ‘FTTC’ – panic not, it just stands for ‘Fibre To The Cabinet’. Easy, huh?

Virgin Media’s fibre is also FTTC, but does not suffer to the same extent as Openreach when it comes to slowdown over distance. That’s because the cabling Virgin Media uses is that which it inherited from the already-established cable TV networks formerly owned by NTL, Telewest and others.

Since they were designed to carry a TV signal originally, the integrity of this signal was paramount. You wouldn’t want your customers receiving snowy, poor-quality TV images after all. So the cabling is better, for one, but also signal boosting over distance is built in at regular intervals. This means broadband signals do not degrade to the same extent. You wouldn’t be able to kit Pluto out with broadband using this method, but it’s better, and fully explains how Virgin Media is able to offer speeds nearly three times that of providers who operate on Openreach.

The other type of fibre – available from only a small clutch of niche providers to a small clutch of households – is called FTTP, or Fibre To The Premises. This is when – you guessed it – the fibre cable runs all the way to your home. It is offered by providers such as Hyperoptic, Gigaclear and a number of speciality rural providers like B4RN. Just to be clear: You almost certainly cannot get it.

BT announced in Spring of 2016 it has plans to roll out FTTP fibre to millions of homes over the coming years, but don’t hold your breath.

Frequently asked questions

You’ll find everything you need to know in order to choose the fibre broadband deal that’s right for you in the main section ‘How to choose a fibre broadband deal’ above. However, there may be one or two specific questions left over. That’s what this section is for.

We’re happy to answer literally anything (about fibre broadband), so if you have a burning question we haven’t covered, do let us know at info@cable.co.uk.

Do I need a new line for fibre broadband?

No. Any provider operating on the BT Openreach network (that’s everyone except Virgin Media) will provide your broadband via the phone line already coming into your house. In the case of Virgin Media, if Virgin equipment is not already installed at your home, the engineer will have to drill a hole through your external wall and into the room you wish to keep your router.

How long does fibre broadband take to install?

Most providers will have you up and running in two weeks. This can be shorter if, say, you’re signing up with Virgin Media and you already have a Virgin Media line coming into your house, or longer if your home is located somewhere which introduces particular geographical difficulties.

Will I need a new router?

If you’re upgrading to fibre from standard broadband then yes, you almost certainly will. You shouldn’t worry about it, however. All UK providers provide you with a new router suited specifically to your package when you sign up.

What speed should I expect to actually get?

The speed you get will be determined by three factors: The speed you choose, your distance from your local broadband cabinet and which provider you go with. More Virgin Media customers get the speed they pay for because the infrastructure is superior. If you’re signing up with a provider on BT’s Openreach network (anyone except Virgin) we can give you a rough idea of what sort of speed you’ll be getting when you enter your postcode and phone number (at the top of this page).

What are FTTC and FTTH and what’s the difference?

FTTC is when the fibre cabling of the network only goes as far as the cabinet on the street, but not all the way to your home. FTTC stands for ‘Fibre To The Cabinet’. FTTC can suffer from slowdown over distance, with those living in excess of 800 metres from the cabinet and beyond experiencing severely reduced broadband speeds.

FTTH stands for Fibre To The Home, and describes the unusual – in the UK – situation in which the fibre cable runs all the way to your home. Speed on FTTH does not reduce over distance, and the theoretical top speeds are many multiples higher.

How many Mbps is fibre optic?

How long is a piece of string? Fibre broadband is always faster than ADSL (standard broadband), but the number of megabits you get are primarily defined by which package you ultimately choose to take out. Read the main section of this page, entitled ‘How to choose a fibre broadband deal’, for advice on what speed is best for you.

Will fibre broadband improve streaming and prevent buffering?

Probably. It depends where you live. If you’re going to get your broadband from any Openreach provider (every provider except Virgin Media) and you live more than 800 metres from your nearest cabinet, opting for fibre may not improve your speed by very much. As a general rule, though, fibre all but guarantees smooth streaming.

I can’t get fibre. When will it be available in my area?

If you can’t currently get fibre where you live, you can register your interest on Virgin Media’s website, or contact BT to get an idea of when and if it will arrive. Sadly, one can feel rather powerless when it comes to getting superfast broadband. It is, by definition, totally in someone else’s hands. We can offer this advice, however: It’s always better to get the best non-fibre package you can and upgrade when you can than it is to wait it out.

What fibre speed should I get for watching 4K TV?

When thinking about streaming speeds, the best course is to take whatever the recommendation is and double it. The recommended speed for 4K UHD streaming is 25Mbps – double that, so aim for 50Mbps. The reason doubling is necessary is that recommended estimates tend to be based on the minimum needed in ideal conditions.

Streaming different things requires different bitrates – a person’s face in close-up (where not much is changing on-screen) might consumer 10Mbps in UHD, while a flock of butterflies taking off (where lots is changing) may require many times that.

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