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Does fibre mean fibre?

Fibre broadband

Fibre is the new premium standard in broadband. But with speeds seemingly dependent on whether your fibre goes to the cabinet, your home or somewhere in between, does fibre really mean fibre?

Broadband advertising is confusing. That’s something we’ve been banging on about for a while. So it’s good to see the CAP (Committee of Advertising Practice) consulting on how providers advertise ‘up to’ speeds to customers, and it’s something Which? will be responding to.

But here is another thing that might add to the confusion, especially if you are not a telecoms nerd like myself. It’s the meaning of fibre and how Internet Service Providers (ISPs) use it in their advertisements.

Faster with more fibre

When a prospective customer sees a broadband advert boasting about ‘ultra, hyper, super-douper fast [insert superlative and superlative] fibre’, do they realise that, in most cases, at least some of their connection will be made up of traditional telephone line copper wiring?

There are a number of ways in which you can get your property connected. In many instances a provider will bring the optical cable as far as the cabinet box and then, depending on how far from the cabinet you live, some other form of cabling will connect the cabinet to your property. It could be copper cabling or some other technology. This is called Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC).

Depending on where you live, some providers may provide a full fibre connection to the home, meaning the cable runs directly into your home. This is called Fibre to the Home (FTTH), or Fibre to the Premises (FTTP). At the moment, around 2% of UK homes have access to full Fibre to the Home and a very small number of altnets (alternative ISPs like Hyperoptic and Gigaclear) offer it.

At present, Virgin Media is the only provider running a slightly different operation. It’s coax-fibre hybrid network (bear with us) uses Fibre-to-the-Cabinet before a coaxial cable takes the connection to your home. Coaxial blocks interference better than standard phone lines allowing Virgin to run faster internet services.

What type of fibre connection do you have?

Fibre to the Cabinet (61%, 637 Votes)

Don't know (21%, 221 Votes)

Fibre to the Home (18%, 190 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,048

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Speed begins where fibre ends

Now what difference does an FTTH connection make? Well, speed is important and the more fibre you have in your broadband connection the higher the likelihood you’ll be enjoying faster broadband.

A fibre to the home connection should mean the speed you pay for and the speed you actually get are closer than if you have a ‘to the Cabinet’ connection. So if you’re paying for 1Gb, you’ll more than likely get 1Gb if you have an FTTH connection, or at least it should be in the same ballpark.

So is fibre really fibre if it doesn’t run all the way to your home? Do you think its fair to call an internet connection fibre when it might not be full fibre? We’d love to hear your views below.

Comments

Tom – It is not necessary to advertise an ‘up to’ speed.

Internet Service Providers can describe the type of connection as broadband (i.e. all copper), FTTC or FTTP and give a reasonable estimate of the broadband speed that a subscriber or potential subscriber would achieve.

Hi Tom – I’m glad you explained that FTTP and FTTH are the same thing. It would be good if the industry had standardised on one or the other. I don’t know why I am lucky and have FTTP broadband, because I’m not exactly in a built-up area. It’s the reliability of the service rather than the speed that appeals most to me.

I shall respond to the current consultation and push for service providers to be banned from using ‘up to’ in their marketing.

I suggest what matters to the user is not the method of connection but the speed they will actually (generally) get. It is this information we need , and how we get hold of it. Given our phone number, for example, can a prospective provider give an estimate of the speed likely to be, on average, achieved at the inlet to our premises? I was given this by john Lewis Broadband when I was considering changing to fibre (to cabinet in my case) and it has proved a good guide.

Speeds will vary as has been explained many times elsewhere – traffic, your equipment and so on.

The ASA are consulting on the way speed should be advertised. It is likely to include an “up to” speed because that, in reality, is realistic. The question is what % of subscribers should that apply to. However, as well as a generalised speed to indicate the sort of maximum performance available I would also like to see adverts tell people how to get a personal prediction – if that is possible.

Hi, I would hope, being told I could receive up to ‘N’ of something, that this would be pretty close.. I find that more insulting. I understand that advertisers expect us to be stupid and believe everything that they tell us..

This is my frustration.. we’re ‘supposed’ to receive ‘up to’ 17Mbps the standard… and I understand that if I was one of those lucky people that live in the correct areas with the most up to date exchanges, cabinets etc I’d probably get around 10Mbps…

I’ve just done one of your speed tests.. (done a few in fact..) the most recent was this:-

Response: 1260ms
Download Speed: 0.9Mbps
Upload Speed: 1Mbps

What upsets me most is, that I pay the same price as those customers in the ‘right area with the right technology’… and they get super speed and I go to my friends house if I want to upload or download anything….

0.9Mbps is not close to 17Mbps, but technically, it is ‘up to’….. Stinks! I want decent internet please!!!
(Thanks!)

I think the word “fibre” should only be used in advertising if the entire connexion from the local exchange to the master socket is in optical fibre. Virgin Media have made great play of the fact that their coaxial cable from their cabinet to the master socket allows for enhanced performance; I am not sure whether it is always superior to uninterrupted optical fibre all the way. Promoting the rival services can be done without confusing people with incomprehensible descriptions of different technologies.

How many people really know what speed they realistically require for their actual functions? For many, Ofcom’s project to get 95% of properties within reach of ‘decent broadband’ – 10 Mbps – will be adequate. But there will be many others for whom a much faster service will be necessary and I believe that is governed more by the capacity of the trunk cables between the exchange and the local cabinet, as well as the capacity of the cabinet itself [that is, the number of properties it has to serve], than by the technical composition of the final section [unless the distance is exceptional].

I am now confused, Tom. I thought the USO was to provide 95% of the connexions to the network with 10 Mbps broadband or higher speed where possible. The remaining 5% would either not get broadband or something less than 10 Mbps. It really would help if Ofcom could be persuaded to come back to us and clarify all this. A different Conversation revealed that a substantial number of people were still getting minimal broadband speeds and frequent drop outs. It also showed that there were inconsistencies between what Openreach said was available and what people could actually get. It would be really useful to have official confirmation of where the unserved 5% will be, how the coverage will be determined, when the fast broadband roll-out will be completed [scheduled for end of 2017], and whether anything will be done later for those who are outside the 95%.

I also think we need some answers from Ofcom on how they are approaching the problem of local capacity being consumed to the detriment of other subscribers by content that requires high speed and high capacity and therefore aggravates the contention ratio; it is suggested, and with some credibility, that the companies generating this traffic are not making a proper contribution to the costs of the national fast broadband project although the telecom service providers supplying these services are charging their customers a high price for them.

I am not entirely sure that the providers do give correct advice to customers as to their broadband speed requirements; they have a strong financial interest in getting people to pay for higher speeds than they will actually use. Since in many cases it seems they cannot reliably deliver the speeds they charge for there is, therefore, a double whammy. Many consumer services are now sold in packages and bundles so there are plenty of opportunities for the companies to bamboozle people and take advantage of them.

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@tcorcoran, if I may say so it is good to see a Convo author not only reading comments but, where appropriate, responding to them, and fairly quickly. It makes Convos so much more useful! 🙂

Thank you very much for your responses, Tom, but no wonder we’re confused. Ofcom’s CEO said in her Which? Conversation piece on 12 April 2017 that “around 5% of homes and offices can’t get decent broadband of 10Mbps”. Some of the unserved 5% presumably cannot get broadband at all. We have had many comments in various Conversations since then that give extremely low speeds in numerous different parts of the country. Personally, I find it hard to believe that 10 Mbps+ [which Ofcom calls “decent broadband”] is actually available to much more than 80% of UK premises. With six months to go before the 95% target is supposed to be fully achieved it would be useful to have an update. I should also be interested to know what is Ofcom’s definition of ‘superfast’ which is what the 95% are expecting – this has never been explained.

Looking back to the Ofcom Conversation many pertinent questions have been raised by various contributors but there have been no answers. Duncan’s point about reaching the final five percent has been expressed in different ways by different contributors but has always been ignored. Mixing this issue up with the 4G mobile signal roll-out did nothing for comprehension of the various statistics and timescales. I think it’s time that the people who will be left out of the superfast broadband programme are informed so they can consider their plans.

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I am not sure there is a specific or sinister agenda, Duncan, just the usual British muddle-headed Civil Service way of going on and keeping the population in the dark under the guise of transparency. Sharon White’s [Ofcom’s CEO] Conversation was launched on 12 April. The general election was announced on 18 April at which point all government offices went into ‘purdah’ on policy matters, so that is why it has all gone quiet. But if you take another look at that Conversation [“Ofcom: calling for a cultural change in the telecoms industry”] all the relevant questions have been posed in the comments from contributors and answers have been called for. It is high time to end the confusion and be open and honest with people throughout the UK.

See: https://conversation.which.co.uk/technology/ofcom-sharon-white-broadband-mobile-services/

A lot depends on what you mean by ‘need’. My wife and I could probably manage most of the time with 10Mbs but add a daughter visiting with family and an extra three or even four devices are likely to be at work, one of them researching homework, others on social media as they chat. What is ‘needed’ then? I do have friends not so far away who struggle to get 2Mbs but in fact I usually get 30Mbs or so.

What is needed, Gray, is the return of the art of conversation instead of digital telegrams.

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That is the whole problem. Outside the city centres the fibre infrastructure is like a country lane that people now want to drive large goods vehicles along, in both directions, all day every day and at increasing speed. Ofcom can specify minimum speeds to be provided under the Universal Service Obligation but they don’t seem to have an answer to the eating-up of that capacity [and thus worsening the internet experience for other users] by the providers of high-speed and large-capacity content.

By the way, now that the General Election is out of the way [for now, at least] is it not time we had a response from Ofcom to all the questions and points raised about the fast broadband roll-out in their CEO’s Conversation and other Conversations along the same lines? It’s been many weeks now and we are still waiting . . . .

I don’t think broadband users really care about the naming of the product or how it reaches them, they only care about the speed they can achieve. Why can consumers not just be charged for the speed that they use and if they are lucky enough to live in a high speed area, this can then be capped at a maximum speed they are happy to pay for.

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All service providers are / should be brought to court for not keeping their contractual promise, speed, high industry standard quality delivery , facilities and excellent pro-active customer services.
End of . The “watch dog” committees etc must be poison fanged !

I am with TalkTalk and have been so for about 10 years, Last year i was cold called and conned into their “Fibre” broadband service. The salesperson was very pushy and aggressive and insisted that the service that I was signing up to was Fibre optic line and not copper line, guess what? same copper line, same connection and no noticeable improvement in service- for double the monthly cost.
The use of the word “Fibre” IS deceptive, as it implies that fibre optic line is used NOT copper.
There is nothing I can do about my situation as to get out of this contract will cost a lot of money and grief most phone providers seem to be incompetent at doing what they charge for, ie. providing a phone line that works.
TalkTalk was a good company to deal with, now just another scam.

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There is also FTTK fibre to the kerb, where it is too costly or obstrucions, ie you have a long drive, like on many farmhouses etc.
I think the pakages should be advertised as
Full Fibre, when entire run is in full fibre.
coaxial fibre, when it is mixed like virgin
copper fibre when type of fibre with copper is used just like FTTC and FTTK

Simplicity itself.

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We have been complaining to Talktalk for over 3 years and are appalled at their lack of response, attitude and inactivity. We are currently waiting for a reply to two letters, written in March and May. They do not reply to phone calls. We cannot make contact with their Board members or the actual CEO but have been palmed off with unconcerned helpers. Our Broadband problem is that we live too far from the exchange, we have an unstable line and no-one seems able to sort it out or show any interest.

The thing that worries me with fibre to the premises or to the cabinet is stories about long down times with BTOR’s queuing system if it goes wrong.

Robin says:
17 June 2017

Zen predict a minimum fibre speed of 40 based on my phone number. Is this going to take into account the 300m distance from the cabinet using the copper wire? No wonder there is confusion.

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Ok, things are always done differently in Hull ! our local telecoms provider (No BT/sky/Virgin here) Kcom (karoo) are fitting FTTP as standard with FTTC as exception (8%) of installs (predominately urbain, some rural) – pricing depending on spee/download allowance…. So not cheap cheap but you get what you pay for… (Me £45 for 700gb /mth, 75mbps, bundled phone calls etc)

Strange thing is you almost never read about this in articles like this and comparison sites such as uswitch even claim fibre isn’t available!

The question is if it can be done here – why not elsewhere? Is it Kcomlocal monopoly or future proofing at play?

I have friends living in Hull. Apparently Ofcom have decided that it’s not a monopoly because other companies can pay to use the lines but since the charges are high, no-one does. In practical terms it seems like a monopoly to me.

I don’t understand the rationale of spending money on rolling out FTTC broadband when it is going to be replaced by FTTP not too far in the future, as the demand for fast broadband grows. Much of the funding should be provided by the companies that profit by providing entertainment and other services that require fast broadband.

Agree seems complete waste of cash doing a bodge job (FTTC) – agree those private companies benefitting should contribute but politically don’t see this happening – good grief they might be made to pay tax!

Re Kcom yes not a ‘monopoly’ but one for all intents and purposes acts as one

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I’m only relating what I have been told, Duncan, and as I have said, it looks like a monopoly to me. I cannot find an explanation of Ofcom’s reasoning.

You make a very good point about it being easier and more cost effective to provide an FTTP service in an urban area. What I’m opposed to is spending money on obsolescent technology (i.e. FTTC) when entertainment companies should be making a substantial contribution to the cost of the roll-out of modern fibre broadband. The problem of aluminium cables has been mentioned, so we switch from aluminium to copper and then copper to fibre – and waste money in doing so. I am certainly not blaming BT for anything, though I would like to hear them pushing the government to raise funding from the companies that make use of fast broadband.

Openreach is a national monopoly because of its massive domination of the telecom infrastructure – no other company or collection of companies comes close to the number of lines it controls. Kingston-upon-Hull has had a local monopoly of telecom services for well over a hundred years. It used to be municipal but is now a private company. Neither Openreach nor any other provider has any significant infrastructure in the City or in certain surrounding areas. Local residents have virtually no access to other providers’ broadband services and KC has little incentive to improve the service it provides.

By contrast, as part of Ofcom’s attempts to open the BT/Openreach monopoly in the rest of the country,other providers are able to use their exchanges, ducts and cables to carry their traffic, although Virgin Media,and increasingly TalkTalk, have either taken over previous cable companies’ plant or installed their own cabinets, ducts, and cables thus becoming independent of Openreach at the local level.

Although, over time, FTTC will be replaced by FTTP, the cabinets will still be there as part of the network connecting the trunk fibre optic cables from the exchange to the local distribution frame that will serve individual properties so the only new infrastructure requirement in urban areas and other places with high subscriber density is the final fibre link to the property. Main cables carrying bundles of fibre optic cables will feed from the cabinets to chambers or boxes in the streets or at blocks of flats which will split the signals for individual houses, flats or other premises. It is the digitisation of the signals that enables a single fibre optic cable to carry a very wide band of traffic at very high speeds. Some of the cabinets I have seen on the streets for providers other than Openreach are now effectively exchanges themselves and have high power intakes and sophisticated ventilation.

To achieve the 95% decent broadband roll-out it must surely be necessary to install many more cabinets in low density areas in order to reduce the distance from the cabinet to the premises. I am sure the final link will remain copper in many remote situations, but, if fibre reaches closer, its superior speed, capacity and reliability over longer distances should compensate for the deficiencies of copper for that final section, and new booster technology should improve the signal quality – plus, by definition, remote locations do not have the contention problem that is becoming an issue in heavily built-up areas where early fibre installations have been shown to be inadequate for modern user requirements.

I’m obviously no expert but I have read that FTTP offers maximum advantage in remote situations because it can cover long distances without boosters.

Duncan has explained some of the reasons why FTTP is an expensive option. I think there might be some ways of reducing costs. For example, are the charges made by landowners for access to private land justified, especially since they will benefit from a faster and more reliable service.

I fully understand why we have used existing cables for standard broadband but FTTC seems unwise. As demand for faster services grows, what may be an adequate speed at present will decline due to increased demand.

It will depend on what capacity fibre cable is provided to the cabinet and on how many onward FTTP extensions are made. It is apparent that the capacity of many cabinets is already inadequate because the incoming cables from the exchange are too small. If there is sufficient spare duct capacity these can be upgraded [at a cost] but if new ducts have to be provided the cost will soar and the work will take a long time.

I believe it is the case that FTTP is provided for all new build housing, but that is a tiny fraction of the housing stock. The cost of providing a fibre cable link to each separate property to replace the overhead copper line would have to be recharged to each occupier I suppose. I do not know whether fibre optic cabling is comfortable when strung between poles so undergrounding it is probably the preference. Virgin Media were lucky; they were able to buy up the dying cable TV infrastructure that was soon overtaken by satellite broadcasting so had ready-made access to every property in their network area from a small box in the footway from which the coaxial cable was often run on the surface [clipped to a fence or brick wall before reaching an exterior junction box].

I expect Ofcom has laid down standard charges per kilometre for wayleaves and easements over private land so owners cannot hold Openreach or other providers to ransom. It’s just a logistical mountain to climb as well as a topographical one in many cases. There is also room for routeing arguments that can hold things up. Most residential and business locations in the UK, however remote, already have an overhead copper telephone line so there will probably be an existing wayleave than can be updated.

Alan says:
17 June 2017

Which? should be putting some pressure on the regulator, BT is running rings round it. It is totally unacceptable for BT to spend billions on sport. This money could be used to ensure FTTP for most (appreciate remote areas need an alternative solution). So instead of pushing to separate Openreach, it should tell BT to deliver what we all want.

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In my village the fibre goes to the cabinet and from there the lines are either copper, or even aluminium.
I have had a line fault, requiring the services of four Openreach engineers, when a copper to aluminium connection failed.
My ISP, TalkTalk still advertises Fast Fibre Broadband, even offering, for extra, Super Fast Fibre with an ‘up to’ speed.

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Presumably, as a quick fix while waiting for a full fibre service all the way to the premises, much of the copper cabling made redundant by FTTC will be recycled to replace obsolete aluminium cables on the final link.

Using recycled copper cabling may seem a cost saving solution but if it means increased maintenance work and complaints it could prove poor value for money, as the aluminium cables have proved to be. I would ask the engineers for their input.

We have FTTC and with a speed at best of only 9Mbps it is only marginally faster than standard broadband. All this hype for what is a third rate service, it is a scandal.

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I see one of the problems as most consumers do not understand why they might need over priced fibre. If they are only using broadband for internet browsing and email then 0.5Mbps may be acceptable but if they want to download/stream SD TV then 3Mbps would be considered minimum. HD TV then 10Mbps. A household comprising 2 adults and 2 teenagers might want to stream 3 HD TV channels , now they need FTTC with 30Mbps, so the cabinet needs to be within 500m. How long before this family want to stream 4k TV? 240Mbps?

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That is indeed the very point, Greytech. The question is – who should be paying for that capacity? All of us as taxpayers, or each subscriber to the high-demand content through the companies that supply it? Nobody in government or Ofcom seems to have an answer to this.

Normally the provision of a “luxury” service would be decided commercially on the number of customers prepared to pay premium prices to make the provision profitable. I see no reason why the taxpayer should subsidise high speed broadband, above that needed for normal everyday tasks. If people want it for their entertainment or business they should pay for it. There are far more worthwhile uses for my taxes – including health and social care.

If those who provide material that demands high speed broadband charge premium subscriptions, part of the revenue should support the necessary infrastructure but I don’t see how that can be achieved. Is there a simple answer?

I have no problem with customers paying more for high speed broadband and I suggest that it would be better to charge according to usage and get rid of ‘unlimited’ tariffs, on the basis that they can slow down the service for other users who don’t have the benefit of an FTTP service.

Users of services that require high speed broadband are going to increasingly slow down the service for other users, so we need the providers of entertainment services to make a substantial contribution to the roll out of fibre broadband. I don’t know the answer either but it might be worth looking at how other countries have tackled the problem.

It is interesting that BT itself is now one of the drivers of high demand content. We received a promotional pack from BT yesterday offering all manner of amusement services to be delivered by broadband for staggering monthly amounts – after the introductory period, of course. Are they restricting these promotions to areas where they know that their sister company Openreach has sufficient capacity available in the local network over the next few years to reliably supply these services without contention problems? Should the wealthy dominate access to broadband services and deprive the less wealthy of essential access? Is the telecom service provider side of BT Group making an adequate contribution to the Openreach side for infrastructure upgrades?

I know that there are some exceptions, like Hull and B4RN and satellite (not Sky), but the hidden point in all of this is that we are only really talking about 2 major providers, who have an effective monopoly over all of our telecommunications – BT and Virgin. The deals they strike with other so-called suppliers, like Talk Talk, are to provide the same communications from their own source. In other words, Talk Talk is provided by BT so you are, despite the clever newspeak of Ofcom and the rest, having your facilities provided from BT and not an independent provider. I made the mistake a few years ago of changing to Talk Talk and what a bunch of incompetent cowboys they turned out to be, and it was down to the deal they had at that time, with BT as it was BT engineers who dealt with my many complaints and faults. I only stayed a year with them and went back to BT, but even they have their faults. I recently had a fault sorted out, up to a point, when it was noted by the arriving engineer that the box on the pole supply the cable to my house, was open. He discovered, what should have been sorted out several years ago, was that the cover had obviously been off a considerable time as the connections, including mine, were all degraded. In addition, he also found that the cable from the pole to the cabinet is aluminium not copper and he raised an appropriate fault. My fault was, as I say up to a point, sorted, but I still experience my connection dropping out and fading away as well. I live about 50 yards from my nearest cabinet and would willingly pay to have the last connection from there to my home made into fibre, but since this cabinet is not yet connected via fibre, despite very many others in the immediate locality proudly show that they have been converted to fibre, I will just have to wait, along with also waiting for BT to come and change the aluminium cable to copper!
I don’t believe that given all the profits being made by the like of BT, that there should be any 5% left out of any coverage for a respectable speed of broadband connection. I would also suggest that larger businesses, the like of Experian, all the banks and others operating call centres should be the ones being penalised or charged even higher prices than they pay now to meet the needs of the country as a whole. These people cannot whinge that it is they that earn the wealth for this country if all they want to do is to continually screw us over financially.

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Why were aluminium cables ever considered suitable at the low voltages used in phone networks? I presume that the decisions were made by administrators rather than engineers with practical experience.

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Taking into account the cost of attending to faults and the eventual cost of replacement, the cost saving might not have proved long term value for money. If only those with authority started off with a good grounding in science and practical matters.

Agreed, Wavechange – or they could have just read their history books if practical science was anathema to them.

Of course, copper is how a tiny country like Belgium became great and imperial through its exploitation of the copper deposits in the Congo region. It now has a major say in our future. Not making any geo-political point here – just reflecting on how things turn out.

I would have liked to have voted in the poll, but since there is no option to cover my wired only connection, I can’t! People like me should also be allowed to register this fact.