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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 mega-whatsits 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

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 download 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

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 now lower than previously advertised, but far more realistic. 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 7GB or so. If you're miraculously getting 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.

However, if you could get 76Mbps, 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 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?

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 averaging 36Mbps on an entry-level fibre pacakage 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 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 of 350Mbps thanks to Virgin's fastest package, VIVID 350.

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.

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 350Mbps 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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