Cable vs fibre optic broadband: What’s the difference?

Cable vs fibre icon

I have a choice of broadband providers where I live, but I'm not sure which to go with. Can you please explain the difference between Virgin Media's cable and the fibre optic broadband from BT and Sky? Thanks!

Matilda Braithwaite, via email

If you're after super speedy broadband, your options will usually be either cable or fibre optic - but what are they, and what's the difference? And, most importantly, which one should you get?

What is fibre optic broadband?

Fibre optic broadband literally uses fibre optic cables to send data. It's fast. It's very, very fast, especially compared to traditional ADSL broadband, and gives you a much more reliable connection to boot.

With fibre broadband, your connection is generally made up of fibre optic lines up to your local street cabinet, which then connects to your home via copper phone lines. A few providers offer broadband with fibre lines all the way to your router, though this is less common.

Most fibre providers use BT's Openreach network, including BT itself, Sky, TalkTalk, Plusnet, and EE. Others, such as Hyperoptic, have their own network of lines.

What is cable broadband?

If you get broadband from a cable provider like Virgin Media, most of your connection is still fibre optic - yeah, we know, it's a bit confusing. What makes a difference is the last mile - i.e. the connection between the local exchange and your home. For most fibre optic broadband, the last mile consists of copper phone lines, but for cable broadband it's made of coaxial cable - which can carry data far faster than copper, since it experiences less loss in speed over distances.

The main cable broadband provider in the UK is Virgin Media, though there are other, smaller ones too.

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*Average speeds are based on the download speeds of at least 50% of customers at peak time (8pm to 10pm). Speed can be affected by a range of technical and environmental factors. The speed you receive where you live may be lower than that listed above. You can check the estimated speed to your property prior to purchasing.

Cable vs fibre broadband speeds

Generally speaking, cable broadband packages are currently faster. Virgin Media offers average download speeds of 362Mb with its fastest package, while the top packages from other providers sits between 63-67Mb. Which is… well, it's still pretty darn fast. 63Mb is more than enough for your whole household to stream HD video, play games, and browse the web at the same time.

The fastest possible speeds come from the few fibre providers that offer FTTH (fibre to the home) or FTTP (fibre to the premises), which have fibre lines all the way from the exchange to your home. Some providers offer speeds up to 1Gb (1,000Mb) here.

Both cable and fibre broadband are available in speeds fast enough to do almost whatever you want, and both can still vary a fair bit - depending on things like your location, how far you are from an exchange, what kind of building you live in, the tech in your local cabinet, the wires in your home, and so on. When you sign up to either one, you'll be given a more accurate figure of what sort of speeds you can expect where you live.

Fibre ethernet

Cost

The cost of your broadband tends to depend more on which provider you pick, than on whether you choose fibre or cable.

The cheapest superfast packages tend to come from value fibre optic providers - such as TalkTalk or Plusnet. At the more premium end of the scale, unlimited fibre and cable prices aren't that much different, especially as promotions and special deals often abound.

We recommend using our postcode checker to see what's available for you.

Availability

Fibre broadband is much more widely available than cable. Virgin Media's network currently only serves around half of the UK, for example, while more than 85% of the country can get fibre from BT alone.

Ultrafast fibre, however - the kind with speeds up to 1Gb - isn't nearly as widespread.

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*Average speeds are based on the download speeds of at least 50% of customers at peak time (8pm to 10pm). Speed can be affected by a range of technical and environmental factors. The speed you receive where you live may be lower than that listed above. You can check the estimated speed to your property prior to purchasing.

So which is best?

There are a lot of things to think about when you're picking a broadband package, and most of them are more important than whether to choose a cable or fibre connection. There's speed, cost, package types, home phone, TV options… they'll almost always make more difference than the kind of cabling your broadband uses.

Unless you have your heart absolutely set on one, we say it's best to simply compare what you can get for your home and choose the most suitable one for you.

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