Fibre optic broadband vs cable - which gives better speeds?

Fibre help

If you want superfast broadband, there are generally considered to be two options worth pursuing in the post-ADSL world: fibre or cable? In practice, there often isn’t much difference between the two, with both usually using fibre optic cables up until the ‘last mile’. Confused? We don’t blame you. It is, in fact, more complicated than this, with more than just these two considerations to take into account.

So, to begin, let’s go back to basics...

What is fibre broadband?

Fibre broadband gets its name from its use of fibre optic cables, which contain a series of reflective tubes made from glass that transport data in the form of flashes of light (travelling almost at the speed of light) from the telephone exchange to your home or business. This results in vastly increased speeds.

Compared with the old ADSL broadband, which used copper cables and could reach speeds of around 6 Mbps, the 60+ Mbps speeds offered by most UK fibre optic providers’ top packages today are dizzying.

So that’s it, right? Fibre is faster. Well, not exactly.

Most fibre broadband providers in the UK offer what is called FTTC (Fibre to the cabinet) broadband. This means that the fibre cables run from the telephone exchange to that little green cabinet on your street, and from there to your home ordinary telephone cables do the job.

Are you with BT, Sky, TalkTalk, Plusnet or EE?Then this is how you stay connected - and why your fibre package isn’t quite up to hyperspeed as you might have expected.

What is cable broadband?

Cable broadband, which is most commonly provided in the UK by Virgin Media, refers to the coaxial cables used by these providers at the last mile stage. Also known as Hybrid Fibre Coaxial (HFC), this process also uses fibre optic cables up to the last mile, where coaxial cables are laid to the customer’s home or business in place of traditional copper cables.

While not as fast as fibre optics, these cables also offer significantly faster speeds than copper ones, which has allowed providers like Virgin to reach average download speeds of up to 362 Mbps - significantly faster than mainstream fibre optic providers like BT or Sky.

So cable is actually the fastest option? Not quite. Although coaxial cables are capable of faster speeds than traditional cables, their performance can depend on how many people are using the internet in one area at a given time. This means that at peak times (when you’ll perhaps most need your connection) you won’t get the fastest service.

Even discounting cable’s tendency to slow down when lines get saturated, it is not true that it outpaces all fibre providers. Fibre optic cables are undeniably faster than coaxial cables, and a few providers are speeding up the process at the last mile by laying fibre optics all the way to people’s homes and businesses:

Fibre to the premises

Fibre construction

While most fibre providers operate using the FTTC model, making cable providers generally faster, there are a select few that operate using a model called Fibre to the premises (FTTP).

FTTP basically means installing fibre optic cables from the cabinet to your home or place of work, resulting in uninterrupted fibre optic transfer of data from the telephone exchange to your router.

This, of course, results in speeds that leave coaxial cables and conventional fibre packages in the dust - UK providers such as Hyperoptic and Gigaclear reach speeds of up to 1 Gbps, which is ten times faster than the quickest mainstream fibre providers. These are niche providers, however, and they tend to install on a building-by-building basis.

It can be an expensive process, and if you live in a block of flats there would need to be enough interest from other residents for these providers to consider installing a line.

So which to choose?

Choosing

For pure speed, nothing beats fibre optics, but it’s only that simple if you get it all the way. If money is no object and the service is available to you, FTTP is certainly the way to go. And apart from speed, fibre cables are not affected by peak time saturation, nor will they short during a power cut - the transfer of data depending on pulses of light that are reflected by glass as opposed to electricity.

Fibre optic cables are also far more environmentally friendly than traditional cables, which produce significant amounts of excess heat and require expensive and environmentally damaging cooling systems to keep data centres at a suitable temperature. Fibre optics require no cooling systems as they generate no excess heat, nor do they need to be insulated or jacketed with heavy metals such as lead, which can also be damaging to the environment.

If you want superfast but feel your wallet won’t stretch past the mainstream providers, you may be tempted by cable as the fastest alternative, but in truth FTTP providers are not necessarily more expensive.

Virgin’s top (362 Mb) package sits at £50 per month, and that’s just broadband, whereas Hyperoptic’s 1Gb Broadband & Phone package starts at £51 per month, going up to £63 after 12 months. So if you want a connection that’s smooth like butter, even when price comes into it, fibre is head and shoulders above cable. The only thing that may stop you is its availability in your area, which you can check on the providers’ websites.

For a normal household, the speeds offered by most mainstream companies’ fastest packages (usually over 60Mb) will meet your needs easily enough.

These packages often come in at under £30 per month - Sky’s 63 Mb Fibre Max + Anytime Extra deal comes in at £27 per month, and Virgin offer a fibre package with 108 Mb average speeds for the same price. These deals are enough to keep the most internet-hungry household happy, and won’t slow you down at peak times.

In short, whether you’re willing to shell out for a superfast deal or just need enough to keep a household of internet users happy, fibre is almost always the best option if it is available to you.

To add to the benefits already mentioned, fibre is considered more or less future-proof, with advances to the technology generally coming through changes in the way light is transmitted through the cables rather than the makeup of the cables themselves. This means that future development will not require replacing cables, so those that choose FTTP can watch their service improve well into the future without worrying about expensive and tiresome upgrade processes.