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Fibre Broadband: What is FTTC aka Fibre to the Cabinet and what does it mean?

FTTC stands for Fibre to the Cabinet. It’s one of two ways in which next-gen fibre optic broadband is being delivered to homes and businesses in the UK. FTTC in a nutshell is much easier and cheaper to deliver en masse than its counterpart, FTTP or Fibre to the Premises (sometimes called FTTH or Fibre to the Home).

FTTC uses existing broadband infrastructure - exchanges, street cabinets and copper wire - to deliver broadband to homes and properties whereas with FTTP the entire connection is made up of fibre optic lines.

In this diagram below, obtained from the recent House of Lords Select Committee Inquiry on Communications report, you can see at a glance the basic differences between traditional copper DSL broadband, FTTC broadband and FTTP broadband.

Fibre Broadband: What is FTTC aka Fibre to the Cabinet and what does it mean?


What is the Last Mile?

With FTTC, a fibre optic connection runs all the way from the core network (backhaul) through to the local exchange after which it runs to a street cabinet. From here, several connections split off from one cabinet into multiple homes, hence fibre ‘to the Cabinet’.

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The last leg of the connection is referred to as the ‘Last Mile.’ Though not always strictly a mile long, this length of copper wire is the last connection from the cabinet to your house and, like traditional ADSL broadband, the distance between the cabinet and the premises will determine your ultimate speed. The greater the distance, the slower your download and upload speeds will be.

Fibre Broadband: What is FTTC aka Fibre to the Cabinet and what does it mean?

A page on BT’s site titled ‘Understanding your broadband speed’ explains:

“the final stage of the broadband journey is from the cabinet to your home. While this distance isn't as critical to your broadband speed as the overall distance from the telephone exchange to your home, it still has an effect on your speed.”

This description of broadband speeds was written to help customers understand broadband speeds over ADSL/copper broadband but the same ‘length of distance/speed’ rule of thumb applies to FTTC broadband.

What's more, If your home is too far from your nearest cabinet then chances are you won’t even see a difference. At 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) from the cabinet, FTTC broadband delivers the same speeds as regular broadband - around 10Mbps.

Additionally, cabinets which are more than 5.4 kilometers (3.4 miles) from their BT exchange currently cannot be upgraded to FTTC. Your home or business may even be too close - if you’re connected directly to an exchange (bypassing the cabinet altogether) then you’re currently not on the cards for a fibre broadband upgrade from BT.

Fibre broadband: why doesn’t my BT cabinet have FTTC when my exchange is ready?

Figures from Ikanos (below, click to enlarge) show that VDSL2 broadband (the type of FTTC broadband BT uses) is capable of delivering its current top download speed of 80Mbps if you’re some 2,000 feet from the cabinet.

Even if you’re located in this 2,000 foot radius, the time of day you're online can also affect your speed and the more users that are online at the same time as you, the slower your speed will be.

Fibre Broadband: What is FTTC aka Fibre to the Cabinet and what does it mean?

Source: Ikanos

Top speeds available from BT's FTTC fibre broadband current peak at 80Mbps - roughly ten times higher than the national average. Its unlikely that everyone will get this (even BT advertises its BT Infinity 2 as having a 76Mbps top speed), but FTTC is something of  stopgap solution for BT, long-term.

Right now, BT is also working on an 'FTTP on demand' upgrade trial. This is taking place now in a handful of locations and will continue until the end of May 2013. 

Fibre Broadband: Can I upgrade from FTTC to FTTP?

Not yet. Hopefully by the end of the trial we'll have a clearer picture from BT on just how this upgrade process will work.

The purpose of this trial is to see how easy it will be to upgrade the 'last mile'. This will entail replacing the last copper line with a fibre optic connection. Doing so would see a dramatic uptick in both speeds and the number of areas able to achieve faster speeds. 

Current top speeds available from BT's FTTP fibre broadband are 330Mbps. BT has also announced that its network is capable of 1Gbps speeds.

Customers likely to benefit from FTTP on demand at first will be businesses, specifically SME (Small to Medium Enterprise) customers.

Fibre Broadband: Where can I get FTTP?

FTTP fibre broadband is available in a handful of locations in the UK. BT offers FTTP in 15 locations and Hyperoptic provides 1Gbps FTTP broadband in and around central London. In Bournemouth, Fibrebrand is trialling FTTP broadband for a launch later this year. Velocity 1 is another provider of FTTP broadband offering residential, business and student packages.

Read our 'What is FTTP aka Fibre to the Premises and what does it mean?' feature for a full explainer on FTTP and where you can get it.

Earlier this year BT announced the locations where 'FTTP On Demand' would be trialled - this is the process which will see customers able to pay to upgrade the copper last mile with cable, turning semi skimmed FTTC into full fat FTTP.

Read our 'BT announces locations for 330Mbps FTTP on demand' feature for full details of the trials.

Mike Galvin, BT Openreach’s MD for Network Investment said on launch: “FTTP on Demand has great potential and so we are proceeding with these pilots.

Whilst we believe FTTC will be our mass market consumer product for some time yet but FTTP may be of interest to small and medium sized businesses and so we want to make it accessible throughout our fibre footprint.

This development can potentially help SMEs to compete both at home and abroad as well as maintain and create jobs across the UK.”

Over time the cost of FTTP on demand - estimated to be around £1,000 per line - should fall. Part of the trial is to work out whether or not integrating this cost into long-term contracts (for example, £1,000 spread over 24 months) is viable for BT and ISPs wanting to offer an FTTP on demand service.

Fibre Broadband: Where can I get FTTC?

FTTC broadband is available to millions of homes and business in the UK - over 11 million at the last count. We keep a comprehensive list of all the UK ISPs which offer FTTC broadband in our 'Fibre Broadband: Who's doing it?' feature. We update this regularly with news on upgrades and product launches as and when they come in.

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