Fibre optic lines are made of glass (silica) or plastic, which allow information to be transmitted in the form of light (e.g. a low powered laser beam). At its most simple this is a bit like using a torch to send an S-O-S (help) message to your friend next door, except the light would be going down a cable. Light is incredibly fast, more reliable and thus many regard true fibre optic connections as being future proof.
Unfortunately it would be incredibly costly to rollout a true fibre optic (FTTH/P) service to every doorstep and office in the country (estimates vary between £15bn and £30bn). As a result telecoms operators, such as BT and Virgin Media in the United Kingdom, have preferred to adopt a more cost effective approach by mixing existing (old) cables with the latest fibre optic lines.
The advantage of this method is that related services are usually both significantly cheaper and easier to install because the last mile connection into homes and businesses does not need to be replaced (i.e. the fibre optic cable is taken to a local node or street cabinet - as pictured above - but no further).
On the other hand related technologies can struggle to match the performance of a full fibre optic line because the last mile connection, which often uses slower copper or coaxial cables (copper in particular is considerably more susceptible to interference and signal degradation over distance), remains a limiting factor. The UK market is currently dominated by two primary hybrid fibre and cable technologies (see below).
Hybrid Fibre and Cable Technologies
Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC)
BT and several smaller telecoms providers, such as Digital Region and KC, are currently in the process deploying FTTC technology out to over 66% of the country by spring 2014 and government funding could push them to 90%+ by 2017. This halfway house method craftily runs a fibre optic line from the nearest telephone exchange to your local street cabinet. The "last mile" connectivity from cabinet to your home is then done by using VDSL2 technology over your existing copper phone lines.
The VDSL or VDSL2+ (aka - Very High Bit-Rate DSL) technology is similar to standard ADSL broadband but it runs much faster over shorter copper lines. This makes it ideal for a hybrid fibre solution because, thanks to the use of a fibre optic cable that effectively shortens the overall copper line distance, signal degradation and interference becomes less of an issue, which allows for superfast speeds.
Admittedly the extra copper in FTTC still makes related services slower than full FTTH and more susceptible to performance problems over distance, although unlike FTTH you won't lose your connection if the power goes down because the telecoms network can use its own isolated electricity supply. Being cheaper to deploy also makes it affordable for home users and the technology is a lot more reliable than ADSL too.
Service speeds of up to 80Mbps download and 20Mbps upload are the current standard, which could rise to 100Mbps+ in the near future. Generally speaking you need to live about 400 metres or less from your street cabinet to get the best performance, while some people who reside over 2000 metres (2km) away have reported speeds of 16Mbps. Ofcom reports that FTTC ISPs deliver an average real-world service speed of around 40Mbps.
Sadly FTTC services require an engineer installation and this attracts a one-off setup fee of around £100. Customers can also expect to pay a +£5-£10 monthly premium for related services in comparison to traditional but slower ADSL solutions.
Cable Modem (DOCSIS / EuroDOCSIS 3.0+)
Cable services are currently delivered by less than a handful of UK ISPs, although Virgin Media is the only one of any real national scale and covers almost 50% of the country. Related services run over a mix of high-grade coaxial and some fibre optic cable. Most cable networks install fibre to a node (bit like a street cabinet) and then deliver their connection to homes via a short run of copper or coaxial cables.
These networks usually make use of the DOCSIS or EuroDOCSIS technology (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification), which is an international standard for defining the communications and operation support interface requirements of a data over cable system. DOCSIS3.0 is capable of reaching speeds of over 400Mbps using 8 channel bonding but Virgin Media currently only offer 120Mbps (note: 200Mbps has been trialled). Sadly you can't mix and match different providers and services (e.g. broadband, TV and phone) on a cable line, they must all come from one operator and will often need an engineer installation.
The above services are likely to completely replace existing ADSL solutions over the next 5-10 years and further enhancements are planned for the future. For example, in 2014 BTs FTTC solution could adopt Vectoring technology that would help to remove crosstalk (interference) on the last mile of copper cable and give everybody better speeds.
On top of that BT are also investigating Fibre-to-the-Disribution-Point (FTTdp) and G.Fast technology, which would most likely work together to bring the fibre optic lines even closer to homes and could thus push speeds to 1000Mbps+ (1Gbps) via the shorter run of remaining copper cable. Check out our editorial articles linked below for more details.
Similarly the latest DOCSIS3.1 standard for cable networks like Virgin Media, which might see the light of day as part of a commercial rollout in 2015, could push peak speeds to 10Gbps (10,000Mbps). Home users are unlikely to get such speeds but its perhaps not unreasonable to expect that 500-1000Mbps might become possible for homes. See our related articles below for more details.
Related ISPreview.co.uk Content:
* UK Cable (DOCSIS) Broadband ISP Listings
* UK FTTC Broadband ISP Listings
* Fixed Line Broadband ISP Reviews (General)
* Fixed Line Broadband Discussion Forum
* Broadband Coverage Checker
* EDITORIAL: A Look at G.Fast and Fibre to the Distribution Point FTTdp Broadband Tech
* EDITORIAL: Will the Real Fibre Optic Broadband Service Please Stand Up
* EDITORIAL: A Look at Virgin Media UK's Plan for DOCSIS 3.1 and 10Gbps Broadband