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

Cables

Question

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

Our expert Kim says...

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.

Read more about fibre optic broadband in our guide.

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.

Cable broadband deals

Virgin Media
Virgin Media
Virgin Media
Super 50 Fibre Broadband + Talk Weekends Vivid 100 Fibre Broadband + Talk Weekends Vivid 200 Fibre Broadband + Talk Weekends
Monthly cost £9.00 (for 12 months, then £21.00 per month thereafter) 1st year cost: £122.99 Monthly cost £12.00 (for 12 months, then £26.00 per month thereafter) 1st year cost: £158.99 Monthly cost £25.00 (for 12 months, then £34.00 per month thereafter) 1st year cost: £314.99
Up To 50 Mb Up To 100 Mb Up To 200 Mb
Weekend calls inc. Weekend calls inc. Weekend calls inc.
Go
Call Virgin Media on 0808 168 6088
Open 24/7
Go
Call Virgin Media on 0808 168 6088
Open 24/7
Go
Call Virgin Media on 0808 168 6088
Open 24/7

Cable vs fibre broadband speeds

Generally speaking, cable broadband packages are currently faster. Virgin Media offers speeds of up to a lickety-split 200Mb, while the fastest you'll find from fibre is 76Mb. Which is… well, it's still pretty darn fast. 76Mb 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. Hyperoptic, for instance, has a blisteringly fast 1Gb package.

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 optics

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.

Fibre optic broadband deals

Sky
TalkTalk
BT
Virgin Media
Fibre Unlimited Fibre Medium with SimplyBroadband Unlimited Infinity 1 + Weekend Calls Super 50 Fibre Broadband + Talk Weekends
Monthly cost £10.00 (for 12 months, then £20.00 per month thereafter) 1st year cost: £168.95 Monthly cost £8.75 (for 18 months, then £17.50 per month thereafter) 1st year cost: £111.75 Monthly cost £10.00 (for 12 months, then £26.00 per month thereafter) 1st year cost: £176.95 Monthly cost £9.00 (for 12 months, then £21.00 per month thereafter) 1st year cost: £122.99
Up To 38 Mb Up To 38 Mb Up To 52 Mb Up To 50 Mb
Pay as you go Pay as you go Weekend calls inc. Weekend calls inc.
Go
Call Sky on 0800 151 2878
Mon to Sun 8am-10pm
Go
Call TalkTalk on 0800 049 7843
Mon to Thurs 8am-10pmFri to Sun 8am-9pm
Go
Call BT on 0800 783 5390
Mon to Sun 8am-6.30pm
Go
Call Virgin Media on 0808 168 6088
Open 24/7

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, line rental, 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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