Connecting to 2013: Fibre Broadband (FTTC/FTTP) and EFM
For anyone who’s sat through a TV advert about broadband in recent years, the terms ‘fibre broadband’ and ‘superfast broadband’ are probably only too familiar. BT has been spending big, both in terms of its roll-out of this latest technology and its efforts at proclaiming this to the heavens. Historic rivals Virgin Media are not far behind… But ‘fibre broadband’, while sold with all the unequivocal evangelism the ASA could permit, is in fact a rather broad church as far as the technology is concerned – and as for the needs of quite a number of business users, other services, much less well espoused, may not be quite as irrelevant as the spectacular advertising spend would have us believe. Here, we’ll take a look at the two main categories of fibre broadband which are being offered to small businesses and domestic consumers in the UK, examining what each can provide from a practical perspective. But we’ll also turn our attention to EFM, a technology which for many SME users in particular, may still present a highly relevant and reliable offering.
Fibre Broadband – FTTC and FTTP/FTTH – The Technology
Fibre broadband is the new way broadband internet will be delivered to businesses and households up and down the UK in the coming years. It is essentially a system, currently being rolled-out by BT, Virgin Media and others, which utilises fibre optic cables rather than conventional copper cables, to carry a broadband signal. Unlike copper, fibre optic cables allow a light-based signal to carry data through them. Copper on the other hand can only allow an electrical signal to pass along its length. Due to the resistance inherent in transmission of any electrical signal through wire, fibre optics provide a far more efficient means of carrying data, which until recently, had remained a technological impossibility.
There are two main types of fibre broadband. FTTC stands for ‘Fibre to the Cabinet’ which explains the crucial stage in the broadband signal’s journey. From the telephone exchange, a broadband signal must reach a ‘cabinet’, typically at the end of a street, before it can be routed to a particular address. Fibre to the cabinet means that up until the cabinet, the broadband is carried by a fibre connection. Beyond the cabinet, a typical FTTC connection relies on the copper lines already in place to deliver the signal to/from the home/business premises. As with all copper wire connections, the longer the wire, the greater the resistance and the weaker the signal becomes as it is attenuated down the wire’s length.
FTTP/FTTH on the other hand, employs a fibre optic cable all the way to the ‘Premises’ or ‘Home’, meaning the signal strength from the telephone exchange, through the ‘cabinet’ to the end destination, is much less attenuated.
Fibre Broadband – FTTC and FTTP/FTTH – Speed
Typically, two main FTTC options are offered by providers – ’40 Mbps download speed (with either 2 or 10 Mbps uploads) or 80 Mbps download speed (with 20 Mbps uploads). But as distances from ‘cabinet’ do affect the signal considerably, it’s worth considering that at 500 metres the fibre signal bandwidth is more than halved, at 1500 metres, just 15% of its original speed.
Back to FTTP/FTTH. As the ‘premium’ option, FTTP/FTTH or ‘full fibre’ as it is often known, is able to deliver even faster options such as 100 Mbps with 10-30 Mbps uploads and even 330 Mbps download. Further speed upgrades in years to come will likely mean 1 Gbps downstream by the end of 2013/2014.
As has been highlighted, FTTC speeds will vary according to the distance of the home or premises from the ‘cabinet’ but both FTTP and FTTC speeds will also be affected by the level of demand for the services in years to come and how individual ISP’s decide to allocate resources. Presently, most fibre broadband services are billed as ‘up to’ and the reason for this is that both FTTP and FTTC are provided on a ‘contended’ basis, meaning that at peak times the speeds available to customers will vary according to total demand in a given area. As with conventional ADSL, the actual guaranteed connection speed will likely depend in large part on how much you are prepared to spend. BT do offer a ‘best effort’ planned downstream speed on some fibre broadband services (typically 12 Mbps on a 35 Mbps service), depending on the equipment at the exchange, the distance from the exchange to the premises and the number of users in the area.
In terms of reliability, besides the variability of service based on usage in a given area and the distance from the ‘cabinet’ which affects FTTC, FTTC is also vulnerable to the fact that historically, it is typically the ‘last mile’ of DSL-based, copper wire services which are where most of the faults on any line occur. With FTTC services which employ existing BT copper wire infrastructure, while fibre broadband will likely be considerably quicker while it’s up, it could suffer from the same reliability issues as conventional ADSL lines.
It should be noted at this point that in terms of domestic fibre broadband services, Virgin Media is rolling out FTTP/FTTH services, while BT is offering predominantly FTTC.
EFM – Ethernet First Mile – A More Viable Option for Business?
The fundamental point of difference between EFM and fibre broadband is the complete absence of fibre optics with the former! While EFM stands for ‘Ethernet First Mile’ from the ISP perspective, for the user, it’s more like the last mile, if one follows the thinking of FTTP vs FTTC and is interested in what’s happening from the cabinet to your premises… EFM uses pairs of copper wires from the cabinet to business premises and unlike FTTC and FTTP offerings, an EFM leased line is uncontended, offering speeds of up to 35 Mbps symmetrically, which means uploads at the same speed as downloads. Also, with a higher speed EFM service which typically employs a number of paired lines, from a reliability point of view, if one pair corrodes and develops a fault, the service will not fail completely.
While EFM may not be able to offer the dizzy-heights maximum speeds of FTTP fibre broadband, for businesses which require consistently high upload speeds as well as downloads and guaranteed/uncontended speeds at peak times, EFM may be a sensible middle ground between the high speeds but potential variability and compromised reliability of FTTC/FTTP and the impressive specifications but higher cost implications of a dedicated leased fibre line. The key points for businesses looking at new technologies to remember is that no one business is the same and all connectivity options have their relative strengths and weaknesses. A few factors to bear in mind which could steer you in the right direction: Speed – do you prefer the ‘up to’ and ‘best effort’ of FTTC/FTTP or the constancy but potentially lower speeds of EFM? Reliability: Can you afford the risk of greater downtime with FTTC or do you require the firmer guarantee of EFM connectivity? Uploads: Do you rely on uploading as much as downloading (EFM) Cost: Do you want to make the most of some of the great deals on fibre broadband which are currently on offer? And crucially, which service, EFM or FTTC/FTTP is available in your area?