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What's the difference between standard (ADSL) and fibre broadband?

By Luke Albiges
Tuesday, February 20th 2018

Confused about what all the different broadband options offered by providers actually mean and how they function? Not sure how many Mmmbops is the right number for you? Don't worry – we've got you covered.

Read on and in a few short minutes, you'll have all the information you need to make the best choice about what kind of broadband deal is right for you, and you might even be surprised by how much faster a line you could get without paying a lot more...

ADSL and fibre key differences – an overview

Fibre is, as the name suggests, the process of tying a thin piece of string directly from your router to the internet in order to browse Readit and read face books at speeds in excess of 14. Now obviously that's nonsense, but it's a solid example of the kind of jargon-soaked wrongspeak and misinformation that's all too common in discussion of broadband tech.

In truth, it's actually extremely simple – standard broadband uses existing copper phone lines for transferring data, while fibre uses a newer network of high-speed fibre-optic cables that are better able to deliver high-speed data across greater distances, resulting in much faster top speeds for fibre packages.

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.

While typical fibre deals were once extremely expensive compared to slower 'standard' options and fairly limited in availability, ever-growing coverage and tumbling prices are quickly making fibre the new standard.

Speed – fibre is faster

This is where it gets a bit confusing, since the numbers stated aren't always what you'll actually get in practice. This is most often the case with standard broadband, usually advertised as offering speeds 'up to 17Mbps'. In reality, however, those old copper phone lines can hold speeds back – line quality and distances between exchanges throttle top speeds and mean that the actual performance is only about half of what should be possible, with 9Mbps around the average.

Conversely, fibre's lossless network typically sees real-world speeds come closer to matching those quoted, although with so many providers using the Openreach network, speeds may not always be exactly as fast as stated based on network traffic. Bespoke cable networks like those used by Virgin Media and other ultrafast fibre suppliers and much less contested, however, meaning you should expect to be able to hit (or at least near) the advertised speed.

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 7GB or so. If you're miraculously getting the maximum possible speed of 17Mbps from a standard broadband line, that'll download in just under an hour, but most users will probably find it to be closer to two hours.

Compare that to a max speed fibre line from most major providers (76Mbps) and the download time comes down to around 15 minutes. And if you're able to get in on newer services that offer speeds up to 300Mbps, 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?

Does fibre broadband cost more than ADSL?

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 of up to 76Mbps – the maximum achievable on the Openreach network used by most providers – 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 likely to fall on these top-end lines as coverage grows, and one day we'll all be using ultrafast fibre lines, just as we jumped from dial-up to broadband before.

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 2017 report by Ofcom states that an impressive 91% of UK premises are able to get superfast broadband (30Mbps or quicker), with that figure edging up to 92% using the government's own definition of superfast (24Mbps) and rapidly approaching its 95% target. At the other end of the spectrum, only a meagre 3% of the country is 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 3% 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 over half the country with its reach growing steadily, with just over a third of UK properties able to enjoy speeds up to 300Mbps thanks to Virgin's fastest package, VIVID 300.

Generally speaking, most people living in urban areas should be able to enjoy speeds of up to 76Mbps 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.

You see, some providers impose traffic management at peak times or on users deemed to be overusing bandwidth, which can slow down connections. See what each provider has to say about this when browsing 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 ADSL?

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 300Mbps 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 one 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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