What are the different kinds of internet connection available in the UK?

What are the different kinds of internet connection available in the UK?

This is a breakdown of the physical infrastructure of the most common types of home internet access in the UK; FTTC, FTTP, DSL/ADSL and Mobile Broadband.


FTTC - Superfast Fibre to the Cabinet


The majority of people in the UK get their internet access through Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) systems. When internet access was first added to people's homes, BT and Openreach used the existing copper phone lines to carry the network data, which were limited in terms of speed and capacity. Over time, the cables between the exchanges and the local cabinets were upgraded to fibre optic cable, with the cabling between each cabinet and individual homes being left as the copper cabling.


Fibre optic cable can carry far more information than copper as it transmits data as multiple beams of light across a spectrum. The older copper cables are still used between the cabinet and individual houses, but having fibre to the cabinet increases the maximum available speed from around 15 mbs to 70 mbs in most cases.


The upgrade from copper to fibre is still being carried out by Openreach, who used to operate as part of BT. Although they are now separate companies BT still has input on Openreach's regular operations. The Openreach network is used by BT, Sky, EE, Now, Plus Net, TalkTalk, Vodafone and supermarket internet brands, as well as many other smaller companies.


Superfast Fibre is available in around 96% of UK homes - more than 28 million properties - and is how the majority of UK users access the internet at home. It is usually suitable for small to medium households working from home, streaming TV and movies and using at least ten internet connected devices.


A connection to the Openreach network is almost always included when a house is being constructed, with almost all older properties now being retrofitted, so most customers should not need to request to have an access point installed in their property. However, when a broadband account is closed that property will be disconnected at the cabinet and an Openreach engineer will need to be booked to come out and reconnect the property at the cabinet. The engineer does not need access to the property, but the internet connection will not be live until this has been done. This process typically takes 5-14 days depending on whether the previous occupant's closure is still pending.


If the cabling into the cabinet on a property's street has not been upgraded, they can only receive DSL or ADSL broadband.



DSL/ADSL - Old style Copper Cabling and Standard Speed Broadband



The initials stand for (Asymmetric) Digital Subscriber Line. ADSL broadband is delivered through copper phone lines from your local telephone exchange. Estimated speeds are typically around 11mbs, although these can also be greatly reduced by the distance from your local telephone exchange to your property.


If a property only shows ADSL broadband available during pre-call checks but previous occupants or neighbours have a fibre broadband connection then there may be no slots currently available in the local fibre cabinet, meaning only the direct phone line connection is available. You can check the status of the fibre line at a property here. This is the BT/Openreach network status checker and will show if a property has fibre available in the area but no slots in the cabinet or if there is no fibre cabinet within range of the property. This checker will also show if this area is a priority to have a fibre cabinet installed.


While there are a few different ADSL providers available in the UK we would almost always recommend an Openreach provider such as Sky, BT or Now broadband. These providers are not only good value and reliable but are also the most likely to upgrade their service to FTTC (Superfast) or even FTTP (Ultrafast) broadband in future, allowing the customer to upgrade their existing broadband package.


If a property only has ADSL or standard broadband then it is worth looking at what the options for mobile broadband are in the area - you can see an explanation of how mobile broadband routers work below. While mobile broadband is typically a little less reliable than wired broadband in terms of connection strength and range the speeds of even a 4G router will usually be higher than standard broadband, and a 5G router will be much more suitable for households that need to work from home or have multiple users.



FTTP- Ultrafast Fibre with Openreach, Virgin Media and the OFNL


Fibre to the Premises or Ultrafast fibre is the other end of the internet speed spectrum to ADSL, where the entire connection from the property to the exchange is all made up of fibre optic cabling. The typical maximum speed on this connection is 900 mbs/1GB, with a few 2GB connections appearing. Connections in the 900mbs-1Gbs are also sometimes called 'Hyperfast' broadband. Openreach will occasionally show properties as having a limited Ultrafast fibre with speeds of around 350 mbs. Other than this, limitations on speed will be based on the package the customer chooses to take rather than technical restrictions, and almost all customers will be able to upgrade their speed mid-package if they wish to.


As FTTP is the fastest and most efficient broadband infrastructure available it is used in the majority of new builds and installations. There are a number of different companies currently offering these connections, with availability depending on the property location. Openreach, for example, are installing new FTTP connections where possible in their new builds and upgrading their existing network.


A property that is connected to Openreach's FTTP network will have a white box mounted on the wall inside the property called an ONT. ONT's can be connected to by any Openreach provider, with Ultrafast 900 mbs broadband currently available from BT, EE, Vodafone and, newly, Sky. Some Openreach providers such as Now broadband can connect their routers to an ONT but will still only be able to offer superfast speeds at the property. If a property has had superfast broadband before and Ultrafast has now been introduced to their area an engineer will need to come to the property to connect them to the Ultrafast network and for an ONT. New build properties in areas with these services available will have an ONT fitted as standard.


All of Virgin Media's network is FTTP, with their installation process for an area involving installing network hubs on a street that properties can then be connected to upon request. The Virgin Media installation process of drilling a small hole in an external wall and fitting a connection point inside the property is them running a fibre connection into the premises. If a Virgin Media Property is recorded as 'Quick Start' then it has already had this direct fibre line installed. If an installation is required then Virgin Media engineers will need to run a line from the hub in the street into the property, which will require drilling in an external wall but also require that the driveway, path or parking at the front of the house be temporarily dug up.


As with Openreach, Virgin Media offer Ultrafast Broadband up to 1GB/s, although the earliest versions of their ultrafast line were limited to 500 mbs. Virgin Media deliberately restrict upload speed to around 10 percent of a user's maximum download speed as a traffic control measure.


The 'OFNL' or Open Fibre Network is an Openreach alternative shared network which offers ultrafast broadband at up to 360 mbs for customers across a range of suppliers. The OFNL company we partner with is DirectSave telecom, but there are dozens of companies that operate on this network including the Sky supported 'See The Light'. OFNL properties tend to be in areas where the Openreach network has not been upgraded to fibre. As it is much less well known than either Openreach of Virgin Media's a network, it is less likely that a property that is being moved into will already have been connected to the network, and OFNL providers tend to be smaller companies with more basic websites and customer support services.



Independent FTTP suppliers



Hyperoptic are an independent provider that install FTTP access points in MDUs (multiple dwelling units like flats, maisonettes or houseboat docks) that individual properties can then be connected to with the permission of the property owner. Hyperoptic focus on providing internet connections, with a token landline phone offering for customers who need one, and are extremely competitively priced.


The Hyperoptic installation process is similar to Virgin Media, but the shared connection points that Hyperoptic connect each property to are almost always within the block of flats or larger building that the property is in. This means that there is no need for any external work at the property such as running cabling up the side of the building, and the access point will be fitted on an internal wall. Hyperoptic engineers typically take 2-5 days to install a new connection after it has been booked, and this can be booked further in advance if needed.


As well as Hyperoptic, a number of other independent broadband companies have begun to install their own FTTP networks across the UK which customers can request to be connected to. Optify are another provider who concentrate on installing in MDUs, while other independent providers install outdoor connection hubs in particular localities.


These operate in much the same way as Virgin Media, installing hubs on selected streets and then allowing customers to request to be connected to their networks. If a property is within an area that this supplier has a hub in then their service will show as available both on the supplier's own website and on independent service checkers. Depending on the supplier, showing that their service is available at a property could mean anything from 'they are already installed and ready to use' to 'we are still arranging for the installation of our hub'.


G.Network and Community Fibre both offer FTTP broadband within London, with a maximum speed of approximately 1GBs. Central London has been slow to upgrade to FTTP,  and in some locations even FTTC broadband, because of the difficulties accessing the infrastructure. Many properties in N1, EC1, W1 and WC1 postcodes only have access to standard-speed broadband through Openreach, and these independent providers aim to move into these areas to provide an Ultrafast fibre broadband option. G.Network and Community Fibre usually try to avoid covering the same areas, and both are currently only operating in London.


Trooli broadband is a similar independent fibre provider, however they focus on traditionally underserved rural areas in the home counties (south-east England). These properties often have similar problems to within central London, where difficult access or outdated infrastructure mean high-quality Fibre broadband is not available. Trooli currently have active street connection points in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Dorset, East Sussex, Hampshire, Kent, Norfolk, Suffolk and West Sussex.


Gigaclear are a similar company, working to install Ultrafast broadband in underserved rural areas. Their networks are spread across the UK but recent developments are in Devon and Somerset, West Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Berkshire.



Mobile Broadband - 4G and 5G routers


For those with limited speeds available through broadband infrastructure, mobile broadband can be a good alternative form of internet access. Our mobile routers, both 4G and 5G, generate a home wi-fi signal and a direct Ethernet connection through their connection to the UK's mobile networks.


The signal these routers produce is stronger than hot-spotting from a phone or tablet, allowing a stable connection for multiple devices throughout a property. It's also more secure than just using the public mobile network as it is a (relatively) secure home network. The speeds of 4G routers average around 25 mbs, and the speed of 5G routers average around 250 mbs, so 5G routers would be the best option for typical household usage including working from home.


Mobile broadband routers need to be able to receive mobile signals from where they are located in the property in order to provide internet. Mobile signals are transmitted from large towers, called masts, as radio waves. These radio waves have difficulty penetrating solid walls and objects, especially high frequency, high data waves as used by 5G, and so it is important that mobile routers are placed near a window in an external wall to receive the best possible signal. The wi-fi network created by the router is different to the network the router is connected to, so placing your laptop or phone closer to a mobile router will not necessarily improve your broadband speed if the router is struggling to connect to the mobile network.



So, how does the internet reach my home?


The following is a summary of all of the options above. Internet access involves information being sent from the network exchange to your home (downloaded) and sent via the exchange to the server you are contacting (uploading). The information from the exchange is delivered to a local broadband cabinet or hub via fibre optic cable for FTTC and FTTP or copper phone cabling for DSL and ADSL, or wirelessly to your mobile router through mobile signals.  

If you have a wired connection, your data will then come from the local hub into your property through Fibre Optic cabling for FTTP, or the copper phone line for FTTC, ADSL and DSL. The data will arrive at your home router, which is connected to this line into the property, and which you can then connect individual devices to either wirelessly via wi-fi or through a wired Ethernet connection. Mobile routers operate in the same way except that they receive data via a wireless broadcast rather than the hard line into the property.


Uploading data works very similarly in reverse, with information from your personal devices being uploaded to your router and then sent via either mobile signals or physical cables to the local exchange, where it is then uploaded to the server of the website or service you are using. 

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