Types of home broadband: what are ADSL, fibre and cable broadband?

by Chris Marling

If you are looking for a home broadband connection many of us across the country now have a choice between ADSL or fibre optic broadband. 

In the simplest terms, ADSL is delivered through a BT Openreach exchange, while fibre comes from either the BT Openreach network or a new line that is run into your home by Virgin Media.

All of Virgin's broadband (which is still often referred to as cable internet) is fibre, but BT has its own fibre product (Infinity) which is widely available across the UK. As with ADSL, the fibre infrastructure BT uses is also giving the likes of Sky and TalkTalk the opportunity to offer similar fibre broadband deals.

While BT can supply some form of broadband to many households in the UK, Virgin Media only has coverage to around 60 per cent of properties to date. 

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

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ADSL

An Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line, to give it its snappy full title, connects to the internet via a BT telephone exchange. ADSL technology converts your telephone line into a high-speed digital connection that completely blows away the speeds capable via old dial-up modems. 

To do this you need a microfilter that plugs into your telephone socket; it's a special sort of splitter that separates your voice call from your broadband data. This normally comes included with your broadband package and means you can still receive calls while online - the other big disadvantage of the older dial-up internet services.

Standard older BT ADSL lines are capable of a maximum speed of 8Mb. The speed varies due to a number of factors, the main one being your distance from your local BT telephone exchange. This often leaves those in rural areas with very slow broadband (2Mb or less). However, most providers are now offering ADSL+ broadband, which can offer max speeds of around 17Mb.

This has been aided by local loop unbundling, or LLU - a process where companies such as TalkTalk and Sky are allowed access to BT exchanges to install their own equipment. 

BT has brought ADSL+ to many exchanges as a free upgrade, which is a great bonus. However there are still a few areas to be covered, so if a package says it has a maximum speed of 16Mb don't get your hopes up too soon - you may still be stuck with a max of 8Mb for a while yet.

Virgin Media fibre broadband (cable)

There have been a host of cable companies around the UK over the years that slowly amalgamated into two: NTL and Telewest. These then merged, and were rebranded Virgin Media in 2007 (which was in turn bought by US cable giant Liberty Global in 2013). You may see Virgin broadband called cable, but it is effectively a fibre service similar to that offered by the BT network.

Virgin Media offers an alternative way to hook up not only your broadband, but also your 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, of course. As mentioned above, Virgin fibre is only available to about half of the population, so be sure to check you can get it in your home before considering it.

As well as offering 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.

In most cases it is possible to port over your old BT number if you want to. You can of course cancel your BT phone line, as it is not required to run Virgin broadband, but it can be expensive to reconnect later if you decide against cable in future.

The big advantage with Virgin broadband right now is speed - thanks to its hybrid-fibre network, which deals with data better than BT's old copper wires, its slowest advertised speed is 50Mb. There is also less speed loss the further you are from the exchange. 200Mb lines are also available to more serious internet speed freaks.

BT Infinity fibre broadband

BT is converting its old copper network to fibre-optic and its super-fast 'Infinity' broadband, offering speeds of either 38Mb, 52Mb or 76Mb. It is now available to tens of millions of homes and businesses.

While BT 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 using BT's fibre exchanges (BT itself, plus Sky and TalkTalk) 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 BT FIbre broadband buyer's guide or our comparison of All Fibre broadband deals 

Which is best?

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 (and we mean 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.