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Fibre-optic broadband explained

All you need to know about fibre-optic broadband

If you’ve been scouring the market for a better broadband deal then you’ll undoubtedly have come across the term fibre-optic broadband. Boasting faster speeds than a standard internet connection, it’s often the more expensive option.

If you’re struggling to work out whether you need a superfast fibre-optic connection in your life, then help is at hand. We’re about to take a look at how fibre-optic broadband works, why it’s different to cable broadband and why you might want to invest.

What is fibre-optic broadband and how does it work?

Fibre-optic broadband takes its name from the type of cables that are used to deliver broadband to your home. Unlike traditional ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) broadband which uses copper phone lines to send data to you, fibre-optic cables are made up of tiny strands of plastic or glass. Not too dissimilar to the fibre optic threads found in those old school coloured lamps from the nineties. 

Despite each wire being thinner than a single human hair, they’re responsible for transferring information from your internet provider to your router to get you online. 

If you’re wondering how that happens, then let’s take a minute to get technical. Each strand has a reflective inner wall, information is transmitted down the cable via tiny flashes of light. These flashes bounce off the walls and travel along the cable and into your house. The equipment at the end of the line then interprets the flashes into data and just like that, you have access to the internet.

With data literally travelling at the speed of light, it’s easy to see how fibre-optic broadband offers the fastest connection around.

Are the different types of fibre-optic broadband?

Although there are a few different providers purporting to deliver fibre-optic broadband, they’re not all able to deliver the same speed. This comes down to how broadband reaches your home.

Depending on the type of connection, speeds can vary from 30Mbps to 1Gbps, so it’s best to know what you’re signing up to.

FTTH (fibre to the cabinet)

The most common setup for fibre broadband. Fibre-optic cables run from the exchange to a cabinet on your street. The connection from the cabinet to your home is completed via a copper phone line.

While data transfers to the cabinet are speedy through the fibre-optic cables, the copper phone lines aren’t able to maintain the superfast connection. That being said, you can still expect to get on average 38Mbps.

Powered by BT’s Openreach network, the majority of providers use this for their broadband packages, including BT, Sky, TalkTalk, Post Office, Origin, POP telecom and SSE.

FTTH (fibre to the home)

Also known as FTTP or fibre to the premises, this is where the fibre-optic cable runs from the exchange, through your street cabinet and all the way into your house. 

There is a slight difference if you live in a single house compared to a flats or offices. In a single home the connection runs straight into your living space where you are the only user of the service. This is less common but can produce speeds of up to 1Gbps.

If you’re in a flat or office block, the fibre terminates at the building rather than in your own room. However, as the entire line from the exchange to your building is made up of fibre-optic cables, it still provides extremely fast speeds up to 76Mbps.
BT provides this type of connection in certain areas, TalkTalk also offers an Ultra Fibre Optic Broadband package on this line too, but only in specific locations.

HFC (hybrid fibre-coaxial)

While FTTC and FTTH are the most common broadband connections, Virgin Media has made things a little more complicated. Not content with the speeds produced by traditional fibre-optic cables, the media behemoth uses something called a coaxial cable, this setup is commonly referred to as HFC or Hybrid Fibre-Coaxial.

As with the other two, the cables between the exchange and the street cabinet are fibre-optic, but the connection from the cabinet to your home is the aforementioned coaxial cable. 

Although mainly made of copper, this is a heavy-duty line that was originally intended to transmit analogue television signals and, as such, can transfer data a lot faster than a standard copper phone line. 
It’s because of this that Virgin Media can offer speeds up to 300Mbps

How fast is fibre-optic broadband?

When it comes to broadband, fibre-optic is always going to outperform a traditional ADSL connection. 

Your standard fibre-optic connection (FTTC) will deliver in the region of 38Mbps, although there are a few providers offering a faster fibre connection of around 76Mbps.This should be more than quick enough to keep your whole house happily surfing the web and streaming at the same time.

Virgin Media on the HFC setup enables them to offer speeds up to a ultra-fast 300Mbps, perfect for heavy users that need a quick connection for intense gaming or HD streaming.

Things start to get interesting with the FTTH, with only a couple of providers offering the service it’s also the most limited. With fibre lines all the way from the exchange to your home, speeds can reach up to 1Gbps.

In reality, all fibre-optic connections should provide you with fast enough speeds for you to get online, download, upload and stream content without issue. 
Broadband speed does vary across the country so it’s always worth checking typical speeds in your area ahead of signing up to a new provider.

Do I need to have a phone line installed?

With the rise in mobile usage, a lot of people have bucked the trend of having a landline phone but keep the phone line installed because of their internet connection. 

Although fibre-optic broadband is mostly delivered via cables, most connections (via FTTC) still use the copper phone lines to transfer data into your home. This means you’ll have to pay line rental, even if you don’t use a landline for calls.

With Virgin Media as an exception, most other providers will require an active phone line. Fortunately, this cost is often rolled into the contract cost. To be 100% sure of all your upfront costs, always check with your provider when you take out a new package.

Do I need it?

Being a lot faster and more reliable than an ADSL connection, most people tend to go for a fibre-optic package. The main benefit of using fibre is that because of the faster connection, you can have multiple devices connected - downloading, uploading, streaming or simply surfing the web - at the same time, without any lag.

Fibre broadband does tend to be more expensive than a traditional connection, but in our eyes, it’s worth it. We’d recommend fibre-optic if:

  • You have three or more people who are likely to be online at the same time

  • You have lots of devices connected to the internet, including smartphones, TVs, computers and games consoles. Remember each of those will eat into your band-width.

  • You stream a lot of music or TV. If you’re a TV on demand kind of house then fibre’s definitely the right connection for you.

  • You’re big into gaming. There’s nothing worse than being taken out on Call of Duty because of a patchy internet connection.

  • You regularly download large files or work from home connected to a VPN.

Can I get fibre-optic broadband?

You might be wondering why we still have ADSL connections, what with fibre-optic being the bee’s knees. Unfortunately, fibre-optic broadband isn’t available in every part of the country yet. 

If you’re interested to see which providers operate in your area, you can use our handy postcode checker to compare the best deals.