Today, when the vast majority of home internet connections come with unlimited downloads, the largest determiner of price for broadband tariffs is technology and the speed it allows. Internet providers splash their speeds across advertisements, promise you ‘superfast’ or ‘ultrafast’ internet, and talk up their fibre optic cables. And with the availability of fibre optic internet cresting 95% this year, up from just 70% from five years ago, almost everyone can hook up to the fibre internet.
Should you be splashing out more money for a fibre optic connection, joining the 38% of Brits who do, or can you make do with standard broadband? To know what to look for when you compare broadband tariffs, it helps to understand what exactly those wires are—and what they mean for your web-browsing and binge-watching.
Understanding Broadband Technologies
Fixed line broadband in the UK comes in three flavours:
- Standard or ADSL: internet delivered over copper phone lines; providing average download speeds of 10-11 Mbps; available to 99% of UK households; used by about 42% of internet-connected households in the UK.
- Cable: internet delivered over coaxial cables; speeds ranging from 54 Mbps to 362 Mbps; available to around half of all UK households; offered only by Virgin Media.
- Fibre optic: internet delivered over fibre optic cables. However, the most prevalent form, fibre to the cabinet (FTTC), traverses the distance from your street cabinet to your doorstep on traditional copy writes. FTTC, available to 95% of households, comes in two tiers: one boasting average download speeds of 35-36 Mbps and one with average speeds of 62-67 Mbps. FTTP (fibre-to-the-premise) can achieve even higher speeds—averaging 300 Mbps and sometimes achieving 1 Gigabit per second—but is available to just 4% of UK households.
How fast is superfast?
The government defines superfast as any connection with average download speeds exceeding 24 Mbps—that’s megabits per second, the amount of data the connection can receive in the blink of an eye. The speeds your ISP will advertise will always be download speeds. Because most internet technologies are asymmetrical—and because people receive more information from the internet than they send—upload speeds will be much slower, and more difficult to find on marketing material. All forms of fibre optic broadband will offer these superfast speeds.
But what does 24 Mbps—or 36 or 63—mean for your internet experience? Let’s take a look at the minimum internet speeds required to perform the following common online activities.
- Audio streaming: 0.5+ Mbps; higher sound quality requires 1-2 Mbps
- Web browsing: 1+ Mbps
- High definition video calling: 1.2+ Mbps (and low latency)
- Standard definition video streaming: 1.5+ Mbps (minimum Netflix requires) – 2 Mbps (minimum iPlayer requires).
- Single player gaming: 3 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream (and low latency)
- High definition video streaming: 3+ Mbps. This is the minimum required to stream iPlayer content in HD. Netflix requires 3 Mbps for “DVD quality” streams and 5 Mbps for HD.
- 4K video streaming: 25 Mbps
These numbers may seem low but remember they’re the bare minimum. Higher speeds will lead to a more fluid, comfortable experience. Additionally, If you want to do these things simultaneously—say stream iPlayer while you’re downloading a file and online window shopping— or if you’re sharing a connection with other internet users, you’ll need more bandwidth and speed.
If you download a large number of files, you’ll also want to consider fibre optic broadband, so you aren’t twiddling your thumbs long. For example, downloading a standard definition film (1GB) takes 13 minutes on a standard broadband connection but just 4 minutes on a lower tier of FTTC broadband and a little over 2 minutes on a higher tier of FTTC.
If you’re sharing a household with other internet users (even if they’re just other gadgets and smart appliances) and if you want to stream video, make Skype calls, use peer-to-peer sharing, upload files, and game online, you should opt for a fibre optic connection. If you have a set top box that delivers TV over the internet, you’ll also want to plump fibre internet. The price of fibre has fallen in recent years and the cheapest five optic broadband deals are just a few pounds per month more expensive than ADSL broadband—and well worth the investment.
However, if you use the internet primarily to check your email and occasionally surf the web, a standard ADSL package will fit you comfortably.