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What is fibre broadband?

What is fibre broadband? - featured

Reliable, fast, secure and great value – discover why a high-fibre diet is good for your internet connection as well as your gut

If you’re not on fibre internet, you’re probably sick of hearing lots of companies, friends and family telling you that you should be. Which naturally might make you wonder “what makes fibre broadband so great that everyone seems to want it?”. First, let’s talk about the “broadband” bit of the equation.

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Broadband basics

Broadband is internet that’s fast, reliable and always on. That’s in contrast to “dial-up” internet, which is how most members of the public first connected to the web. A dial-up modem tied up the telephone line and you’d be billed per-minute, just like a phone call. Modern broadband doesn’t work like this at all. You get charged a fixed amount per gigabyte – or, as is more common these days, for a set speed – but with no limit on data (or a very generous one).

The first broadband most people encountered was a DSL or a digital subscriber line (or ADSL, asymmetrical digital subscriber line), which can use the same copper wire as a telephone without interfering with calls. This means your DSL line is always on and available.

In some parts of the world, cable TV providers started offering broadband internet over the same coaxial copper cables that delivered those hundreds of channels to eager viewers. This was significantly faster than DSL in most cases, and you didn’t even need a phone line.

We’ve also seen the rise of mobile broadband, starting with 3G networks back in the early 2000s. Today, this technology is represented by super-fast 5G mobile broadband.

The gold standard for wired home broadband in 2024 is fibre broadband. If you’re not sure what you’re getting into by upgrading to it, we’ll explain what it is and how it works.

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What is fibre broadband?

Unlike copper telephone landlines or coaxial cable TV connections, fibre broadband is delivered over fibre optic cables. Fibre optics are incredibly thin and pure strands of glass. Instead of electrical signals, pulses of light are sent down these fibres at incredibly high frequencies, resulting in very high data transmission speeds.

What is fibre broadband?

Even if you’re currently receiving internet services through a copper cable to your home (referred to as the “last mile” connection) up to that point, the data was almost certainly carried by fibre optic cables at some point in the journey. Thick and complex fibre optic cables cross the ocean floor between continents, and large fibre trunks serve as the major highways of the internet in cities and urban areas.

So in a way you’ve been enjoying fibre broadband without even knowing it; all that’s left is to extend the speed and reliability of this technology right to your door.

Note: There are two types of “fibre” broadband you’ll see advertised: FTTH – fibre to the home – and FTTC – fibre to the cabinet. FTTC uses a copper wire cable from a fibre cabinet to connect you to the internet. While this is still much faster than DSL, it’s not nearly as fast as true fibre to the home. If an FTTC offer is fast enough for your needs, there’s no reason to avoid it, but if you have a choice, FTTH is the way to go.

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Advantages of fibre

Everyone says that fibre is the best broadband of today, but what exactly does it do better than other types of broadband?

First, it’s fast. Of course this depends on the specific offerings of your chosen provider, but these days you can expect to get hundreds of megabits per second (Mbits/sec) rather than tens as with DSL. Gigabit fibre, offering 1,000Mbits/sec, is becoming widely available and affordable, giving households the type of bandwidth only large businesses could dream of just a few years ago.

The UK government has pledged that 85% of the UK will have access to gigabit fibre by 2025 so it’s likely that you’ll have this option soon if you don’t already have it. In some parts of the world, speeds as high as 10Gbits/sec are already available to regular consumers, so clearly the sky’s the limit when it comes to fibre technology.

Apart from the potential for blazing speeds, fibre is also much more reliable, and since it uses photons rather than electronics, it doesn’t have the same need for amplification or sensitivity to interference as copper wiring.

None of these speed and reliability advantages would matter much if fibre was too expensive, but the truth is quite the opposite. Fibre is more affordable for various reasons, and on a “pounds-per-megabit” basis it’s far cheaper than other types of broadband.

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What to expect from a fibre installation

If you’ve moved into a property that doesn’t yet have a fibre connection, you’ll have to factor in the cost and time of installation. Some providers might do the installation for “free” as part of a contract agreement, or you may have to pay for it as a separate fee.

What is fibre broadband?

Once the fibre connection is installed, it’s simply a matter of connecting your router to the fibre ONT (Optical Network Terminal) and activating the connection as per the provider’s instructions.

This all depends on whether any providers have fibre available at your address. Even if they  don’t, with the speed of fibre rollout you’ll likely go on a waiting list.

If you’ve moved into a property that already has a fibre connection, then the only thing to complete is paperwork. However, if you’re moving to a different broadband provider from the previous occupants, there might be a small delay as one provider releases the connection and hands it over to the other company.

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How different ISPs use the same fibre network

If your fibre is provided by the Openreach fibre network, then there’s a wide choice of internet service providers who all have an agreement with Openreach to provide services over its physical fibre network.

However, if your fibre is provided by, for example, CityFibre or Virgin Media, your options might be more limited. Nonetheless, you’ll almost certainly find a plan that suits your pocket and needs, regardless of which set of ISPs you have to choose from.

To get you started, have a look at our roundup of the best broadband providers in the UK.

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What comes after fibre?

Right now, fibre broadband is the most future-proof type of connection you can invest in. As we discussed above, speeds are still increasing and it’s hard to imagine a time when households won’t be satisfied with 10Gbits/sec, or with the higher speeds that will likely become commonplace in the near future.

There are broadband alternatives with their own advantages and disadvantages, however, and one day wireless broadband such as 5G (or later) networks could eventually compete with fibre broadband. Very low-orbit satellite internet such as Starlink may also be a viable alternative to fibre in the medium term, so although we can wholeheartedly recommend broadband fibre to anyone with the option, competition for the best overall technology is still ongoing.

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