You’ll often see terms like superfast and ultrafast broadband when comparing fibre broadband providers.
In the UK, you’ll often see terms like “superfast fibre” and “ultrafast fibre” when comparing home broadband services. These terms are intended to distinguish different categories of home broadband, based on the maximum download speed that’s available on the service.
In this article, we’ll look at the different types of home broadband in the UK. We’ll also look at the definitions of “standard broadband”, “superfast broadband” and “ultrafast broadband” before comparing different broadband technologies in more detail.
Superfast & Ultrafast Fibre Broadband
In the UK, you’ll often see home broadband services being marketed as “superfast broadband” or “ultrafast broadband”. This is based on the maximum download speed available on the service, with the official definitions from Ofcom (the UK’s regulator for telecommunication services) being as follows:
- Standard broadband (download speeds of less than 30Mbit/s). All home broadband services delivered through ADSL technology using a BT Openreach phone line fall within this category.
- Superfast broadband (download speeds of 30Mbit/s to 300Mbit/s). Superfast broadband is used to distinguish home broadband services with a download speed of more than 30Mbit/s. This includes all fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) services as well as the lower tiers of Virgin’s cable-based home broadband service. Broadband that’s delivered through G.fast or 4G technology would also normally be classified as offering superfast speeds.
- Ultrafast broadband (download speeds of more than 300Mbit/s). Ultrafast broadband refers to services offering a download speed of more than 300Mbit/s. Full fibre services (also known as fibre-to-the-home or FTTH) are the gold standard within this category. However, the higher tiers of Virgin Media’s cable-based broadband and 5G broadband would also count as ultrafast broadband. Prior to 2015, the threshold for ultrafast broadband was only 100Mbit/s. Some ISPs continue to use the old definition, marketing their G.fast services as ultrafast broadband even though they offer download speeds of less than 300Mbit/s.
It’s worth noting that Ofcom’s official definitions are fairly one-dimensional when it comes to broadband speed. It ignores lots of other factors such as the upload speed available and the ease of actually getting the maximum available speed.
To give an example, full fibre (or fibre-to-the-home) services tend to offer symmetrical speeds where you can upload at the same speed you download. This is beneficial for things like cloud-based storage where you often need to upload lots of data. Other broadband types like cable normally have asymmetric speeds where uploads are substantially slower than downloads. Another factor that’s missed out is the difference between actual and maximum speeds. For instance, you’ll normally only be able to get a fraction of the maximum possible speed when using 4G or 5G home broadband. Meanwhile, cable or fibre-based broadband will normally give you close to the maximum advertised speed.
Other terms that are sometimes in use include Hyperfast and Gigafast. These terms don’t have a standard industry-recognised meaning: they’re just marketing terms used by certain internet service providers to describe their own service.
UK Broadband Providers
The following table shows a list of internet service providers (ISPs) in the UK. For each ISP, we’ve shown whether they offer standard, superfast and ultrafast broadband services. We’ve also shown the type of technology that is used for each one as this is often much more informative and relevant to what you can do with the service:
|BT Broadband||✔ ADSL||✔ FTTC & G.fast||✔ Full Fibre|
|EE||✔ ADSL||✔ FTTC, G.fast & 4G||✔ Full Fibre|
|Hyperoptic||✘||✘||✔ Full Fibre|
|Now Broadband||✔ ADSL||✔ FTTC||✘|
|Post Office||✔ ADSL||✔ FTTC||✘|
|Plusnet||✔ ADSL||✔ FTTC||✘|
|SSE||✔ ADSL||✔ FTTC||✘|
|TalkTalk||✔ ADSL||✔ FTTC & G.fast||✔ Full Fibre|
|Three||✘||✔ 4G||✔ 5G|
|Shell Energy||✔ ADSL||✔ FTTC||✘|
|Sky Broadband||✔ ADSL||✔ FTTC & G.fast||✔ Full Fibre|
|Virgin Media||✘||✔ DOCSIS Cable||✔ DOCSIS Cable|
|Vodafone||✘||✔ FTTC & 4G||✔ Full Fibre & 5G|
On full fibre (fibre to the home or FTTH) services, your connection will normally always be capable of achieving gigabit download speeds (1Gbit/s or 1,000Mbit/s). However, on some cheaper price plans, the download speeds might be restricted (e.g. sometimes down to as little as 50Mbit/s or 100Mbit/s). This technically brings the service within the realm of offering superfast speeds, although the line is technically capable of providing ultrafast speeds.
In our opinion, it’s far more meaningful to look at the actual broadband technology used rather than relying on top-level categorisations such as “superfast” or “ultrafast”. This will tell you a lot more about how the broadband service is delivered, along with what you can do with it and the associated pros and cons.
The technologies used to provide home broadband in the UK are as follows:
|Broadband Technology||Maximum Download Speed||Maximum Upload Speed||Average Download Speed||Average Upload Speed|
|ADSL||Up to 17Mbit/s||Up to 1.5Mbit/s||11Mbit/s||0.8Mbit/s|
|FTTC||Up to 80Mbit/s||Up to 20Mbit/s||60Mbit/s||18Mbit/s|
|G.fast||Up to 300Mbit/s||Up to 50Mbit/s||280Mbit/s||45Mbit/s|
|DOCSIS Cable||Up to 1,104Mbit/s||Up to 54Mbit/s||1,104Mbit/s||54Mbit/s|
|Full Fibre||Up to 1,000Mbit/s||Up to 1,000Mbit/s||1,000Mbit/s||1,000Mbit/s|
|4G Wireless||Up to 450Mbit/s (Cat9)||Up to 50Mbit/s||15-30Mbit/s||8-10Mbit/s|
|5G Wireless||Up to 1,000Mbit/s||–||150-250Mbit/s||80-100Mbit/s|
A standard home broadband service that’s delivered through your BT Openreach phone line uses a copper connection between your home and the telephone exchange.
With ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) technology, it’s possible to obtain download speeds of up to 17Mbit/s and upload speeds of up to 1.5Mbit/s. Actual download speeds will depend on the distance between your home to the telephone exchange, with average speeds normally being in the region of 11Mbit/s.
Almost all UK homes can get access to ADSL broadband.
FTTC (Fibre To The Cabinet)
The majority of fibre broadband services sold in the UK are actually fibre-to-the-cabinet services, or FTTC for short.
With FTTC, a fibre connection is used from the telephone exchange to your nearest green street cabinet. That’s as far as the fibre connection goes, and a copper connection is then used from the street cabinet to your home (what’s often referred to as the “last mile” connection).
With FTTC, it’s possible to obtain download speeds of up to 80Mbit/s and upload speeds of up to 20Mbit/s. Actual speeds in reality depend on the distance between your home and the street cabinet but average download speeds are normally in the region of 60Mbit/s.
Around 91% of UK homes are able to get a fibre-to-the-cabinet service.
G.fast is a hybrid technology that brings the fibre connection one step closer to your home. Rather than the fibre optic cable stopping at your nearest street cabinet, it goes one step further and ends at a G.fast pod that’s installed on your nearest telephone pole or pavement chamber.
The “last mile” connection between the G.fast pod and your home still uses a traditional copper cable. However, as the amount of copper is greatly reduced, you can get maximum download speed of up to 300Mbit/s and maximum upload speeds of up to 50Mbit/s. Average speeds vary in practice but you can often see an average download speed of around 280Mbit/s.
Around one million UK homes currently have access to G.fast broadband.
In the UK, Virgin Media provides a home broadband service using cable and a technology known as DOCSIS. Technically speaking, DOCSIS is a fibre-to-the-cabinet service but it uses co-axial cables (Hybrid Fibre Coax) between the cabinet and your home. This means performance is a lot better than on regular FTTC which uses basic copper cables rather than a HFC cable.
On Virgin’s latest Gig1 broadband service, it’s possible to obtain download speeds of up to 1Gbit/s. This uses the latest version of DOCSIS 3.1. Upload speeds of 54Mbit/s are available (this is an asymmetric service unlike full fibre connections). In areas where Gig1 broadband is not yet available, Virgin Media offers download speeds of up to 362Mbit/s.
Full Fibre (Fibre To The Home)
The gold standard for home broadband is full fibre (also known as fibre-to-the-home or FTTH). The fibre optic cable runs all the way into your home, meaning you’ll you get the highest possible speeds.
Today’s full fibre services offer up to 1Gbit/s symmetrical speeds: that’s 1,000Mbit/s on both the download and upload. In the future, even higher speeds should become available as newer hardware takes advantage of the fibre optic cable.
Although full fibre services can offer gigabit speeds in both directions, some full fibre services are sold with slower speeds. This is used to make the service more affordable as many people do not require the maximum available speed.
As an alternative to receiving broadband through a phone line or cable, it’s also possible to get home broadband through 4G technology. Here, a wireless connection is used between your home broadband router and the nearest 4G mobile mast.
With Category 9 LTE technology, it’s possible to get download speeds of up to 450Mbit/s and upload speeds of up to 50Mbit/s. In practice, however, speeds on 4G are normally much slower than the maximum. This is due to signal strength not being perfect and due to resources on the mast being shared with other users (contention). A more typical range for download speeds on 4G home broadband is 15-30Mbit/s .
5G is the next generation of wireless home broadband, offering download speeds of up to 1Gbit/s.
Today’s 5G home broadband services will give you an average download speed of around 100Mbit/s. It’s possible, however, to get higher download speeds than this if in you’re in an area with good 5G coverage and with plenty of capacity.