The different types of home broadband: What are ADSL, fibre and cable broadband?

In this guide

If you're in the market for a new home broadband service there's a good chance you'll have a choice between ADSL and fibre optic broadband. But what does this mean, and which should you choose?

But before we go any further...if you're completely new to broadband you may want to visit our beginner's guide. We also have a glossary of broadband terms.

And to see which services you can receive in your home, please enter your postcode on our main broadband comparison page.

Finally, if you were interested in mobile broadband please visit our mobile broadband section for price comparisons and help guides.

What do broadband speeds mean?

One of the key differences with the various types of broadband is the speed.

Broadband speed is measured in bits per second - either kilobits (Kbps or Kb), megabits (Mbps or Mb) or gigabits (Gbps or Gb). This is a measurement of how quickly a connection can transfer data to or from the internet.

For the purposes of this article the main thing you need to know is that bigger numbers are better. However, it's also important to note that all advertised broadband speeds are an "up to" or average estimate to give you a rough idea of the performance.

The speed of broadband varies due to a number of factors, primarily distance from your local telephone exchange. Your actual speed may be very different from the quoted rates, but when signing up to a provider you will be given an accurate estimate.

If you'd like to learn more about this topic there's further detail in our broadband speed guide.

ADSL broadband

The Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line, to give it its snappy full title, connects to the internet via an Openreach telephone exchange, giving you broadband access through a standard Openreach (BT) telephone line. ADSL is the cheapest and most widely available type of fixed line home broadband. It is available from almost all fixed line Internet Service Providers (ISPs) with the notable exception of Vigin Media.

The majority of homes and businesses have access to ADSL2+, which provides download speeds averaging 10-11Mb and upload speeds up to 1Mb. In a few areas there may only be ADSL up to 8Mb, but these are in the minority as most exchanges have been upgraded.

To use ADSL you need a splitter that separates voice calls from broadband data. Newer telephone wall points (those with separate telephone and broadband sockets) have this feature built in. Otherwise you'll need a microfilter which plugs into the phone point, but this normally comes included with your broadband package.

Fibre optic broadband

Fibre optic broadband provides much greater speeds than ADSL, making it better suited to demanding activities such as large file downloads, HD video streaming and handling the needs of a busy household where the connection is shared among many people.

There are several different types of fibre broadband available in the UK.

Openreach (BT) fibre broadband

Openreach (formerly BT Openreach) is converting its old copper network to fibre-optic, offering average speeds of around 32-38Mb, 50Mb or 63-67Mb. It is now available to tens of millions of homes and businesses.

While Openreach fibre does not yet match Virgin for top speeds it is fast enough for many and the extra services available are very similar. All of the big three ISPs (Sky, TalkTalk and BT itself) using Openreach fibre exchanges offer TV deals, alongside home phones and broadband services.

The advantage of a fibre connection over copper is the signal doesn't degrade so much the further you are from the telephone exchange. But again, more rural customers shouldn't hold their breath!

If you want to know more about these services, click through for our fibre broadband buyer's guide or our comparison of all fibre broadband deals.

Virgin Media fibre broadband (cable)

There have been a variety of cable companies around the UK over the years that slowly amalgamated into two big players: NTL and Telewest. These later merged and were rebranded Virgin Media in 2007.

Virgin Media offers an alternative way to hook up not only your broadband but also telephone and TV services. It ignores any BT connection, running a whole new cable into your home - if you're in a Virgin Media network area. Virgin fibre is only available to just over half the population so be sure to check you can get it in your home before considering it.

You may see Virgin broadband called cable broadband, but it is effectively a fibre service similar to that offered by the Openreach telephone network.

As well as providing broadband through its cables Virgin Media offers a 'triple-play' of services that also includes a landline and television, which is roughly comparable to Sky's satellite television service.

Fibre To The Premises

Most fibre broadband services use Fibre To the Cabinet (FTTC) technology (Virgin Media uses the broadly similar HFC - Hybrid Fibre Coaxial). What this means is that fibre optic cable is used to reach street cabinets, but the connection into homes is done with the copper telephone wire, or a coaxial cable in the case of Virgin.

Fibre To The Premises (FTTP, or FTTH - Fibre To The Home) is a full fibre connection. FTTP is capable of much greater speeds, but right now availability is quite limited. Only a small percentage of homes and businesses will have this option, although coverage is slowly increasing.

Switching between Virgin Media and Openreach (BT)

Switching from one Openreach provider to another (going from BT to Sky for example) is usually very simple. Sign up for the new provider and they will handle the process, including the cancellation of your old broadband service.

But going between an Openreach provider and a Virgin Media service is a little different as they are separate networks.

When moving to or from Virgin Media you will need to cancel the previous service. If you wish you let them overlap in case there's a delay in activating the new broadband.

In most cases it is possible to port over your old telephone number if you want to, but be sure to mention this to the ISP at the beginning of the process.

Which is the best type of broadband?

This isn't a question than can be answered simply as everyone is looking for different things in a broadband deal. Broadband speed itself isn't desperately important to most people, despite what you may think from all the advertising. If you can enjoy a connection better than 10Mb on ADSL you should be able to do all you need to.

The big exceptions will be those properties where several people are using a single connection, or individual users are either downloading a lot of large files, or doing a lot of bandwidth intensive activity (such as online gaming, or HD video streaming).

The best advice we can offer is to put your details into our broadband comparison tool, look at all the options available to you, and make a decision based on your individual circumstances. You will find lots of other useful guides on the site too, which can help in every aspect of your decision, as well as opinions from customers who have bought the various products on offer.