What is Gigabit broadband?

As the current gold standard of connectivity, gigabit broadband offers a future-proof solution to domestic internet access

Monday, 6 September, 2021

Although the term gigabit broadband hasn’t received a huge amount of press coverage in recent years, its time is undoubtedly coming.

The principle of giving each domestic property an internet connection capable of piping information at future-proof speeds is undeniably sound.

It was incorporated into the Conservative Party’s most recent general election manifesto, though it was swiftly rowed back on when the original deadline of 2025 proved unattainable.

It’s inspired the creation of small fibre broadband companies, cabling their hometowns and cities with proprietary infrastructure before expanding further afield.

And it’s something many consumers will warmly embrace – especially if their homes are still reliant on legacy technology for internet coverage…

The pace of progress

Twenty years ago, domestic internet access was mainly carried along phone lines via screeching modems, with hardwired connection speeds of just 56Kbps.

There were occasional forays into technological cul-de-sacs like BT’s short-lived Midband service, which increased achievable download speeds to 128Kbps.

Early home broadband connections promised dizzying downloads of 1Mbps, though this was still failing to exploit the full potential of ADSL telephone lines.

More recently, we’ve seen those limits reached with typical download speeds of 11Mbps and uploads of 1Mbps being carried across ADSL connections.

Some dwellings have access to fibre broadband deals, with a fibre cable extending to their nearest pavement exchanges, before an ASDL line completes data’s journey into the home.

Known as Fibre to the Cabinet, achievable download speeds range from 31Mbps to 67Mbps, with uploads typically one-tenth as fast.

To achieve a quicker connection than this requires a fibre optic cable extending from a broadband provider’s network directly into the home.

This is known as full fibre broadband, since there’s no other connection type involved between a host server and a domestic router.

Full fibre broadband offers the fastest home broadband connections speeds ranging from 100Mbps to 1Gbps. The latter is a thousand megabits, and a million times faster than early broadband connections.

It’s also significant that upload speeds can be as rapid as downloads. This is known as a symmetrical connection, lacking the bias towards downloads found on slower services.

Why is gigabit broadband so desirable?

If you’ve ever fumed as Google Maps drops down to low-resolution mode, or an iPlayer programme suddenly buffers mid-episode, you’ll appreciate the importance of fast broadband.

However, gigabit broadband is a significant upgrade on the kind of FTTC or full fibre connection that’s sufficient for buffer-free streaming and high-res mapping.

These are some of the key attractions offered by a gigabit connection:

How does the UK’s gigabit broadband network compare to other countries?

Because internet connectivity is constantly being upgraded, it’s impractical to produce a global league table of gigabit broadband connectivity around the world.

Even domestically, there are significant regional variations.

In Humberside, market monopoly holder KCOM have achieved 100 per cent full fibre rollout, while in West Tyrone, six per cent of homes can’t even get 2Mbps speeds.

However, some international comparisons are worth making.

Swedish ISP Bahnhof offers domestic connections of 10Gbps, which is frankly unnecessary but also extremely impressive.

In Singapore, providers like M1, StarHub and Singtel pipe gigabit connections into residential homes, often bundling in mobile connections or Disney+ at no extra cost.

Jersey was the first jurisdiction in the world to offer full fibre to every household, while small nations like Andorra have historically found it easy to build gigabit broadband networks.

Being a wealthy country also helps, with the United Arab Emirates far outperforming any other Middle Eastern or African nation in terms of gigabit coverage per head of population.

We profiled the UK broadband network’s performance against its European neighbours last year.

Who currently provides gigabit broadband in the UK?

In many instances, the UK’s hyperfast broadband network isn’t quite at gigabit levels yet.

However, it’s often not far away.

A number of ISPs offer 900Mbps connections, including Openreach – the former BT offshoot responsible for maintaining a national grid of domestic and commercial broadband connections.

Then there are specialist full fibre companies constructing their own networks, like Virgin Media, Hyperoptic, Gigaclear and Grain.

A wealth of smaller local firms have sprung up in this deregulated market, typically focusing on new-build housing for reasons explained in this article.

How can I check whether my current internet connection is gigabit or not?

Gigabit broadband image

You might be able to find out from the literature provided by your ISP at the start of your current (or most recent) contract, or from the housebuilder in a recently-constructed property.

Alternatively, connect a computer to your broadband router through an Ethernet cable to minimise the inevitable speed losses caused by wireless connections.

Next, check out our broadband speed checker.

Click ‘Start Speed Test’, and the speed checker will run a series of tests to determine your connection’s upload and download speeds, plus its ping speed.

A ping test is a utility program which checks how long it takes a particular device (in this case your computer) to reach a host over the internet protocol (IP) network used for web traffic.

You can generally disregard ping times – download speeds are the critical factor to look for.

Results may vary according to the time of day, the prevalence of network congestion and the number of other devices connected to your broadband network.

It’s best to run several speed checks over the course of a day before averaging out the results, rather than basing your findings on a single test.

This brings us onto the final point worth noting about gigabit broadband…

Slow slow quick quick slow

Advertised broadband speeds are only intended as a representative average of what can be achieved.

They’re also optimal, meaning a number of factors can diminish the actual speeds being delivered on a specific device at a specific time.

Compromising factors include:

It may be advisable to invest in an extender unit, amplifying the router’s signals across a wider area and accelerating performance in distant rooms.

Even here, load-bearing walls or sheer distance could cause signal drop-out, potentially leaving connections short of the gigabit broadband speeds promised in marketing literature.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!