ADSL, Cable & Fibre : What’s The Main Difference?

April 5th, 2024
ADSL, Cable & Fibre : What’s The Main Difference?

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In this guide, we’ve compiled all the information you need to know to choose the right type of broadband internet for your home. From ADSL to fibre broadband, we’ll help you choose the most competitively-priced type of broadband with ease.

ADSL vs Cable vs Fibre: Your Guide To The Most Common Types Of Broadband In The UK

Broadband provides internet access through multiple different networking technologies including fibre optics, wireless, cable and even satellite. In the UK today, the three most common types of fixed-line broadband are ADSL, cable and fibre.

While there are a few broadband options available out there, your choices will largely depend on the location of your home. For that reason, it’s important not to waste your time focusing on broadband deals that won’t work for your household.

Use the advice below to get to grips with the different types of broadband connections so you and your family can browse the web and stream your favourite movies with ease.

How Many Types Of Broadband Are There?

While this guide will only focus on the three most common broadband connections in the UK, they’re not the only types on the market.

There are six main types of broadband networks in total. These include:

  1. Digital Subscriber Line (DSL). This wireline transmission technology transmits data over traditional copper telephone lines that have already been installed into homes and businesses up and down the country. Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) connections are used primarily by residential customers, while Symmetrical Digital Subscriber Line (SDSL) networks are typically relied on by businesses for services that require significant upstream and downstream bandwidth.
  2. Cable. Cable services allow cable operators to provide broadband using the same coaxial cables that are used to supply TV channels. With comparable speeds to DSL connections, cable modem services connect a wall outlet to a computer.
  3. Fibre Optics. Internet service providers only offer fibre broadband in limited areas in the UK. Fibre broadband is most often delivered through clusters of fibre optic cables at high-speeds.
  4. Wireless. Wireless broadband connects your home to the Internet using a radio-based frequency between the end-users’ location and the service provider’s facility. Wireless Local Area Networks (WLANs) provide broadband access over short distances, with similar speeds to DSL and cable connections.
  5. Satellite. In exactly the same way that satellites orbit the Earth and transmit phone or TV signals, they can also provide homes and businesses with broadband connectivity. As one of the more expensive broadband options, satellite broadband is useful for providing remote locations or sparsely populated areas with a quick internet signal.
  6. Broadband over Powerline (BPL). BPL is an emerging technology that’s only available in a very limited number of locations. Typically, BPL is provided to homes using existing electrical connections and outlets, delivering speeds that are comparable to DSL and cable.

How Many Types Of Broadband Are There

Which Broadband To Choose

Between all the different broadband types, networks and cables available on the market, you might start to feel your head spin. We completely understand that it can be overwhelming to make an informed decision among the sea of options, but choosing an internet provider doesn’t need to be this way.

While it’s essential to consider the type of broadband connection you opt for, there are four key areas to keep in mind as you shop around. Before you commit, think about:

  • Availability. A high-speed cable or fibre-optic broadband connection is no good if the internet provider doesn’t service your area. If you’re in a rural location, it’s particularly important to look into the availability of various broadband connections. Typically, a satellite internet solution is a smart option in most rural areas.
  • Reliability. An unreliable internet connection can be stressful, counterproductive and downright irritating. It’s almost a certainty that one day your internet router and connected hardware will encounter a glitch or deteriorate over time. An important measurement of reliability is how well an internet service provider prioritises customer service. High-quality customer service teams will get your internet connection back up and running quickly should you run into any problems along the way.
  • Speed. If a fast internet connection is important to you and your family, the number you are looking at when comparing plans is the bandwidth (the volume of information per unit of time that can be sustained). The higher the Mbps (megabits per second), the quicker your internet will be.
  • Cost. No one wants to fork out a lot of money for broadband. The best internet service provider for you will have a good balance between speed and price. To find a broadband deal that works for you, it’s important to shop around and compare prices. Also, don’t forget to consider contract length and terms & conditions. Here at Free Price Compare, our price comparison tool can help you find the most affordable broadband package, without the need to sacrifice speed or stability.

So, which should you choose: ADSL vs cable vs fibre?

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ADSL Broadband

What Is ADSL Broadband?

Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line connections are split into two different types: ADSL and ADSL+2. In short, ADSL is basically just the name given to a broadband connection which works through the copper wires of your home’s existing telephone line.

How Does ADSL Broadband Work?

Both types of ADSL connections work through “copper from the telephone network exchange to your home”.

In short, this means the connection from the source to your property uses copper cables. The result is a maximum download speed of around 8 Mbps. ADSL home broadband is the oldest type of connection and is generally considered the slowest.

On the flip side, ADSL+2 is an upgraded version of the original ADSL connection. The major difference is that the structure of the line is physically the same (copper from the exchange to your house), only the technology has been updated and improved to enable higher internet speeds.

Typically, the maximum download speed for ADSL+2 is 24 Mbps, but this can vary depending on the distance the connection has to travel.

Cable Broadband

What Is Cable Broadband Connection?

Cable broadband networks use both fibre optic and coaxial cables to deliver superfast internet services (as well as TV and phone services) directly into your home. Just like ADSL, there are two main types of cable connection to be aware of: FTTC and Gfast.

How Does Cable Broadband Work?

FTTC (Fibre to the Cabinet) works by connecting a fibre optic cable with the exchange and the closest Cabinet to your property. Cabinets are the boxes you will have no doubt seen out on the street. Typically, the closer your home is to the Cabinet, the better.

However, it’s important to be aware that some broadband cables might take a more convoluted path to your property than it initially seems.

As an alternative option, Gfast is basically the same as FTTC except there’s an additional node of technology inserted into the Cabinet that enables faster internet speeds.

While it might seem like a no-brainer to choose Gfast over FTTC, the service isn’t available to everyone in the UK. Unfortunately, only a few internet service providers offer Gfast connections, and your property must be within 500 meters of the Cabinet to successfully qualify.

Is Cable More Reliable Than ADSL?

Unlike with ADSL, internet speed isn’t ever lost when travelling over distance. For that reason, cable broadband typically provides a more reliable service than ADSL. Cable technology has the capability to deliver very fast broadband speeds with the fastest cable broadband packages of up to 150 Mbps.

For example: an FTTC broadband connection uses far less copper cable meaning that fast download speeds of up to 80Mbps can be achieved. However, as we’ve previously mentioned, this will all depend on how far away you are from the Cabinet.

Fibre Broadband

What Is Fibre Broadband?

While FTTC uses fibre optic cables to transmit internet signals, true fibre-optic broadband is classed as Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) — meaning a direct connection between the exchange and your home.

How Does Fibre Broadband Work?

Fibre broadband is delivered through clusters of fibre-optic cables (each individual cable is thinner than a strand of human hair). In recent years, the UK Government has strived to roll out FTTP technology across homes up and down the country, but despite being faster than FTTC, it only makes up a minority of broadband connections.

Using the intricate network of fibre optic cables, the technology is capable of delivering high-volumes of data at the speed of light. For you and your family at home, this means you’re more likely to get faster download speeds and a much more stable internet connection to enjoy 24/7 streaming and browsing.

Is Fibre More Reliable Than ADSL Or Cable Broadband?

In the UK today, FTTP is currently hailed as the best possible type of connection that’s accessible to consumers. Not only does it offer download speeds of up to 2000 Mbps (2 Gbps), but fibre-optic broadband is also significantly more reliable than copper-based connections.

What Is The Fastest Broadband?

Fibre broadband can transmit data at speeds that far exceed what current ADSL or cable technology can achieve. Based on that alone, fibre optic broadband wins the race as the fastest option for home internet in the UK.

Fibre Broadband

The Verdict: Which Is Better ADSL, Cable Or Fibre?

At a broad level, the answer to this question is simple. Out of the three most common broadband types in the UK, fibre broadband is the fastest and most reliable solution.

That said, the main issue with fibre is accessibility. Fibre-optic technology isn’t available to every home across the UK, so it’s important to check the connectivity in your local area and shop around for internet service providers that offer the best compromise.

It bears repeating: while weighing up the different broadband options can be complex and confusing, it doesn’t need to be an overwhelming experience. To make a smart decision, think about broadband type, availability, reliability, speed, and cost.

Choose The Right Type Of Broadband Internet With Ease

Here at Free Price Compare, it’s our goal to make finding the most suitable broadband deals as simple as possible for you. With our comparison service, you have access to free, independent, and impartial advice to help you find the best possible deals.

Our team has a wealth of industry knowledge and experience when it comes to helping customers get the best value for their money. The Free Price Compare team is highly-focused on delivering a first-class service so you can find the right products to meet you and your family’s needs.

If you didn’t find the answer to your question in this guide, browse our other WiFi and broadband guides. Alternatively, take a look through our Help & FAQs section to learn more about how we can help you save.

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What’s the Difference Between Superfast, Ultrafast and Gigabit Broadband Speeds in the UK?

When shopping for a new broadband service from providers like Virgin Media broadband , Hyperoptic or BT, you’ll come across terms like superfast, ultrafast and gigabit broadband. But what do these terms actually mean in terms of the speeds you can expect? Let’s break it down.

Broadband Type Download Speed Range
Superfast 30-300 Mbps
Ultrafast 300-1000 Mbps
Gigabit 1000 Mbps (1 Gbps)+

Superfast broadband refers to download speeds between 30 and 300 Mbps (megabits per second). This is faster than standard ADSL broadband which relies entirely on telephone lines and typically maxes out at 24 Mbps. Superfast broadband is usually delivered via fibre optic cables to your local street cabinet, and then copper wires to your home – known as Fibre-to-the-Cabinet (FTTC).

Ultrafast broadband cranks up the speed further, offering downloads between 300 and 1000 Mbps (1 Gbps). At these higher speeds, you can smoothly stream 4K content, engage in social media, online gaming and video calls on multiple devices simultaneously with minimal slowdowns even at peak times.

Finally, gigabit broadband is the new gold standard, providing blistering speeds of 1 Gbps (1000 Mbps) and above. Gigabit broadband uses full fibre (FTTP) technology, with fibre optic cables running directly to your home rather than stopping at the street cabinet.

Virgin Media and Hyperoptic broadband are two major providers rolling out gigabit-capable broadband across the UK. Virgin Media’s Gig1 fibre broadband offers average download speeds of 1130 Mbps while Hyperoptic’s fastest plan provides up to 1500 Mbps on average.

Area Sep 2021 Jan 2022 May 2022 Jan 2023 May 2023
UK 40% 47% 53% 67% 71%
England 42% 50% 56% 70% 74%
Scotland 28% 33% 37% 53% 64%
Wales 25% 29% 34% 48% 60%
N. Ireland 64% 65% 69% 74% 81%

Source: Ofcom

As you can see from the table, gigabit broadband coverage has expanded rapidly and is expected to reach 71% of UK homes and businesses by May 2023. The pulses of light transmitting data through fibre optic cables allow for exponentially faster speeds over longer distances compared to old-school copper phone lines.

Can I Get Fibre Broadband in My Area?

The availability of fibre broadband has increased dramatically in recent years, but there are still ‘not-spots’ where it has yet to reach. When checking if you can get fibre, there are two key types to be aware of:

Fibre-to-the-Cabinet (FTTC)

With FTTC, **ultrafast fibre optic cables** run from the **telephone exchange** to the green street cabinets you might spot in your neighbourhood. The final leg of the journey into your home relies on the old copper **phone lines**. While not as fast as **full fibre**, FTTC still unlocks superfast speeds between 30-70 Mbps typically. Over 96% of UK homes can now access an FTTC **fibre broadband** connection. 

Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP)

FTTP is the **full fibre Broadband ** deal, with fibre cables running all the way to your doorstep. This enables gigabit-level **ultrafast broadband speeds**, commonly offering 500-1000 Mbps and beyond. However, FTTP coverage lags behind FTTC currently, at around 30-40% of premises. The UK government is aiming to close this ‘digital divide’ with a target of 85% **gigabit-capable** coverage by 2025.

If you’re unsure what’s available at your address, you can use online postcode checkers or contact broadband providers directly. Increasingly, alt-net providers like Hyperoptic, Community Fibre and Gigaclear are expanding full fibre coverage in cities and rural areas underserved by the bigger names.

Can I Get Fibre Broadband in My Area

How Much Does Fibre Broadband Cost?

Speed Average Monthly Price Range
36 Mbps £22 – £28
67 Mbps £24 – £30
100-200 Mbps £25 – £35
500-900 Mbps £30 – £45
1 Gbps £40 – £60

As you’d expect, faster speeds generally command higher prices. But thanks to growing competition and better infrastructure, gigabit broadband prices have tumbled in the last few years.

Virgin Media broadband deals are a great example – their Gig1 package with average speeds of 1130 Mbps starts at just £40 per month currently. That’s incredible value considering gigabit speeds were upwards of £80/month just a couple years ago.

Ultimately, price depends on factors like speed tier, contract length, whether you bundle TV/phone, and any limited-time promotions. Hyperoptic also frequently runs a ‘price for life’ deal on their gigabit plans with no end-of-contract price hikes, helping to lock in better value if you plan to stay for the long haul.

The key is finding the sweet spot between speed and affordability that meets your household’s needs. A 36 Mbps plan costing £22/month might be ample for a small flat that just streams and browses, while a larger household with avid gamers, streamers and remote workers might justify paying £50/month for gigabit speeds to maximise their broadband performance.

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Guide: How to Find the Best Fibre Broadband Deals

Ready to upgrade to faster fibre speeds or switch to a better-value package? Follow these steps to find your ideal fibre plan:

  1. Gauge your speed requirements – How many users/devices do you have and what activities do you use the internet for most? Households that just email, browse and SD stream can get by with superfast 30-60 Mbps speeds. But if you have multiple people HD or 4K streaming, video calling and gaming simultaneously, ultrafast or gigabit speeds will provide a buffer against any slowdowns.
  2. Consider bundling options – Needing a landline or TV subscription too? Broadband providers like Virgin Media, BT and Sky offer discounts when you add these to your fibre plan. Triple-play packages (broadband, TV and phone) can be good value but beware of hidden fees.
  3. Set your budget – Decide on a monthly price ceiling you’re comfortable with and look for plans in that range. Setup fees, promotion periods and out-of-contract price rises can all affect lifetime costs so don’t just fixate on the headline rate.
  4. Compare across providers – Use comparison tools like Free Price Compare or Broadband Genie to see fibre offerings in your postcode from different networks. Pay attention to average speeds, contract length, setup costs, freebies/rewards and service ratings as well as price.
  5. Look for new customer perks – Broadband providers frequently offer exclusive discounts, vouchers and freebies to entice switchers. You might snag a £100 gift card, a free wireless router worth £100+, or a hefty discount for 3-6 months. These can really boost overall value.

My Property Can’t Get Fibre Broadband – What Are My Options?

Despite the UK’s fibre network expanding rapidly, around 4% of homes – particularly those in remote, rural areas – still cannot access fibre broadband packages whatsoever.

If you’re in a fibre ‘not-spot’, there are two key alternatives worth considering:

4G or 5G Mobile Broadband

Mobile broadband uses 4G and 5G networks to pipe the internet into your home, much like the data on your smartphone. Because it relies on mobile masts rather than fixed-line infrastructure, it can work well for rural properties beyond the fibre footprint.

However, mobile broadband plans usually have data limits in the hundreds of GBs rather than being unlimited like fixed-line plans. Latency and speeds can also be more inconsistent, especially at peak usage times. 5G mobile broadband is improving on this but coverage remains limited. Still, if fibre simply isn’t an option, mobile broadband is a flexible alternative that just requires a 4G/5G router – no engineer visit needed.

Satellite Broadband

Satellite broadband is available virtually anywhere in the UK as it only requires a small satellite dish to be installed at your property. This makes it a viable option for extremely remote locations where no other options exist.

On the downside, satellite typically offers slower speeds than even ADSL fixed-line broadband – around 30 Mbps downloads currently. Latency is also high which can impact video calls and gaming due to the signal needing to bounce off a satellite in space. Satellite plans are normally more expensive and come with traffic prioritisation policies that limit activities like streaming or file sharing to ensure a consistent experience for all users.

UK-based satellite broadband provider Konnect offers a range of rural-focused packages while SpaceX’s Starlink is launching its low-earth orbit satellite network promising faster speeds and lower latency than traditional satellite services. But for now, satellite remains a last resort for homes with no other broadband options.

My Property Can't Get Fibre Broadband What Are My Options

FAQs About Fibre Broadband in the UK

What equipment do I need to use fibre broadband at home?

You’ll need a fibre-compatible router to access the faster speeds of fibre broadband. All providers include a router with their fibre plans, pre-configured to their network. This just needs plugging in and switching on. For full fibre connections, an engineer will also install an Optical Network Terminal (ONT) to translate the fibre signal for your router.

How long does it take to install fibre broadband?

If you already have an active phone line, upgrading to FTTC fibre is pretty quick – often just 10-14 days. You might need an engineer visit to fit a new faceplate but this only takes around an hour. For cable broadband from Virgin Media or full fibre (FTTP), an engineer needs to install a new line into your property which can take 1-4 hours. But the process from sign-up to activation is still usually less than 2 weeks.

Are there any upfront costs for fibre broadband?

Most fibre plans come with free setup and a complimentary router, but some may charge a small upfront fee for certain routers or TV boxes if you’re bundling services. There could also be a one-off installation fee for Virgin or full fibre, but this is usually only £10-£20. Always check the details as upfront costs are separate from the monthly price.

Will I get the advertised fibre speeds?

Not necessarily. Providers advertise an ‘average’ speed that 50% of their customers can get during peak hours (8-10pm). But your actual speed is affected by factors like distance from the cabinet, network congestion, time of day, router positioning and using Wi-Fi instead of a wired connection. Use speed test sites to check your real-world performance.

Can I get fibre broadband without a phone line?

With ‘full fibre’ providers like Hyperoptic and Virgin Media, yes. They operate their own fully fibre or cable networks that don’t rely on phone lines. However, many Openreach FTTC providers still require an active phone line to carry the broadband signal, even if you don’t use the phone itself. But you can choose broadband-only plans without inclusive calls to keep costs down.

What download and upload speeds do I need for my household?

For small households of 1-2 who mainly use the internet for browsing, email, social media and SD video streaming, 30-60 Mbps is sufficient. For households of 3-4 users who stream HD, game and work from home, 60-200 Mbps will provide a buffer. And for large households with 5+ heavy users streaming in 4K, gaming and video calling simultaneously, gigabit speeds (1000 Mbps+) will keep everyone satisfied. Upload speed needs are lower – 10 Mbps is fine for HD video calling while content creators or those backing up large files to the cloud will appreciate the 100 Mbps+ of full fibre.

Is fibre broadband better for online gaming than ADSL?

Absolutely. Fibre’s faster speeds and lower latency make it a far superior choice for gaming compared to ADSL copper broadband. Gamers should look for fibre plans with the lowest ‘ping’ (latency) and jitter to minimise lag spikes that can ruin the experience. An Ethernet connection to the router is also recommended over Wi-Fi. With fibre, you can game in 4K, livestream your gameplay and download huge 100GB+ games in a fraction of the time of ADSL. Just remember that advertised speeds are based on wired connections – real-world Wi-Fi speeds will always be a bit slower.

How do I check what broadband infrastructure is available at my address?

The quickest way is to use an online postcode checker tool on a broadband provider or comparison site. This will show you what fixed-line networks (Openreach, Virgin Media etc.) and speed tiers are available at your specific property. For mobile broadband, check each operator’s coverage map. OFCOM provides a mobile and broadband checker that aggregates data from different networks, giving you a full view of your options.

What’s the difference between superfast, ultrafast and gigabit broadband?

Superfast refers to download speeds from 30 Mbps up to 300 Mbps. Ultrafast steps things up to between 300 Mbps and 1 Gbps (1000 Mbps). Finally, gigabit broadband offers speeds of 1 Gbps and above. In practical terms, superfast is great for small households that mainly stream and browse. Ultrafast suits multi-person households who heavily use the internet simultaneously. Gigabit is for the most demanding users wanting the ultimate performance for 8K streaming, VR gaming and creative work.

Is fibre broadband more reliable than ADSL?

Generally, yes. Fibre optic cables suffer less signal degradation over distance than the copper phone lines used by ADSL. Fibre is also more resilient to electrical interference and less affected by poor weather. However, fibre can still have outages and faults – no broadband technology is perfect. But you’ll typically see more consistent speeds with less slowdown during peak times.

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