What if I can’t get fibre broadband?

Wednesday, 5 April, 2017

Around 10 per cent of UK homes still lack access to cable or fibre broadband. So if you’re one of the unlucky ones what can you do? Is 4G or satellite a viable option?

Cable and fibre broadband both use fibre optic cables to connect you to the internet. The difference is that cable broadband uses fibre optic lines all the way to your home, whereas fibre broadband uses these cables to connect to a street cabinet somewhere near you. Copper cables then connect you to the cabinet.

By the way, fibre optic broadband and fibre broadband are the same thing. You may see it written out both ways, but it refers to the same technology.

Cable currently trumps its fibre competitor in terms of speed: the fastest cable connection is over three times quicker than comparable fibre broadband.

Unfortunately, cable is only available to around half of UK homes – leaving the rest of us with an inferior fibre option.

How much better is fibre broadband?

Broadband that uses neither fibre nor cable is known as ADSL and it uses the same copper telephone lines as old dial-up internet.

Guide: Remember dial-up? How does broadband compare?

Speeds are lower with ADSL and get worse depending on your distance from your local telephone exchange.

Most fibre optic broadband is FTTC – an abbreviation for fibre-to-the-cabinet – with copper cables bridging the rest of the distance to your home. Fibre is faster and more stable than ADSL as it doesn’t suffer from electronic interference.

Interference can be caused by anything from a thunderstorm to a toaster. Electric currents create a magnetic field and this magnetism can interfere with the circuits of other devices. Wireless signals are especially vulnerable to these magnetic fields.

Because fibre optic cables transmit data using light instead of electricity, signals can travel much further without experiencing any losses. Fibre is generally going to cost more but you’re getting a much better service in every regard.

The alternatives to fibre broadband will be different depending on where you live.

In the city

FTTC broadband is available in 97% of urban areas, with coverage constantly increasing.

There’s usually only one reason you can’t get fibre in a city and that’s because your local cabinet is full.

Most cabinets are capable of receiving 300 connections, so in especially dense areas that capacity can fill up.

Waiting for another cabinet or an upgrade to the existing one can take years, so what can you do in the meantime?

What if I can't get fibre broadband near me? Fibre broadband engineer cabinet

4G mobile broadband

4G is currently available to around 70% of UK homes and is in almost every city and large town. It is a significant improvement on the existing 3G network that provides mobile internet.

Although 4G is primarily designed for smartphones and tablets to access, you can purchase a 4G router/modem and connect just about any device – allowing you to receive home internet through the 4G network.

For an entirely wireless connection, 4G speeds are actually pretty impressive. With an average download speed of about 20 mbps and latency around 50ms, 4G seems pretty competitive with some of the cheaper fibre broadband packages. Unfortunately, as with all wireless connections, it is vulnerable to many kinds of interference so these speeds may not always be consistent.

One of the main downsides of 4G is the cost. While the hardware itself is relatively inexpensive, contracts are more costly than unlimited fibre packages with the same speeds and have strict limitations on usage, generally imposing limits of about 10 gigabytes of data per month – that’s around 10 hours of medium-quality Netflix video.

In the country

Rural areas have a lot fewer options if they can’t access fibre. Unfortunately, if you live in area without any fibre internet capabilities, you could be left waiting a while for those Openreach engineers to eventually come around. What’s worse is that rural areas tend to suffer from poor ADSL internet as well.

The distance to your local exchange makes a massive difference with ADSL, and that distance is can be rather large if you live in a rural area. Very remote locations may struggle to even achieve minimal speeds with ADSL broadband.

What’s more, 4G networks lack decent rural coverage, so that option is also generally unavailable.

What if I can't get fibre broadband near me? EE drones 4G mobile

More: EE turns to balloons and drones to fix rural 4G mobile blackspots

Satellite broadband

The only real choice you have is satellite broadband. This can be a very costly venture, both in the hardware required to establish this connection and in the contract to maintain it. Including installation fees, satellite internet is going to set you back around £400 in the first year.

What you get for your cash outlay is a satellite dish on the side of your home and around 20Mbps download speeds with 10GB of monthly usage.

The biggest drawback, aside from the price tag, is an exceptionally high latency.

Guide: What is latency and how does it kill fast internet?

Your connection literally goes to outer space and back, so trying to transmit or receive anything is going to take at least 600ms. This means that most online gaming isn’t really going to be an option and voice chat is going to come with a hefty delay.

Being unable to acquire fibre or cable broadband is certainly a frustration, but it’s good to know that other options are out there. They may be pricey and limiting, but they’re definitely better than nothing.

Eventually, fibre broadband will become available to everyone. The regulator Ofcom and government aim to give a minimum 10Mbps connection to every UK home by 2020. As more and more elements of modern life revolve around the internet, fast broadband is quickly becoming a necessity.

Check the fastest broadband available near you

Samuel Newman author picture


Samuel Newman is a consumer journalist and blogger based in Sheffield.