Why would I want 1Gb broadband?
IN certain parts of the UK, it's now possible to get an ultrafast broadband connection offering speeds of up to 1Gb.
It is admittedly a very limited affair: only 2% of the UK has access to at least 300Mb broadband, with a smaller proportion still having full gigabit connectivity.
Given that so many of us are managing with up to 17Mb, and that Ofcom say take up of standard fibre broadband seems to have slowed slightly in the past year, surely no one really needs or wants 1Gb?
But there are real advantages to having ultrafast 1Gb broadband - or at least, having access to the technology that makes that kind of speed possible - as we hope to make clear in this guide.
The obvious answer to our title question is that 1Gb is the fastest connection possible, meaning everything we do online is guaranteed to go that much more quickly.
One of the UK's biggest ultrafast ISPs, Hyperoptic, give this example:
"On our 1Gb package, you can download an HD movie (5.2GB) in 47 seconds compared to eight minutes on 100Mb. The difference is even more pronounced when downloading 4K movies (100GB) or video games (50GB)."
In households with multiple users each running numerous devices, the extra bandwidth will allow more of those devices to connect at their maximum speed, making for a much smoother experience.
Google, who have their own up to 1Gb network in certain US cities, say that a 1Gb connection will allow users to smoothly stream "at least five high definition videos simultaneously", and still have spare capacity.
That would cover the increasing number of smart devices in our homes, from thermostats and entertainment systems to washing machines and less obvious appliances like kettles.
The more such gadgets in our homes, the less bandwidth each can access, potentially interfering with and slowing down the wireless signal to other connected devices.
Many ultrafast providers pair fast download speeds with matching, or symmetrical, uploads:
Consider that a standard ADSL broadband connection provides downloads of up to 17Mb, but uploads top out at around 1Mb; using the BT Openreach fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) network, the fastest uploads available are up to 19Mb, usually paired with downloads of up to 76Mb.
Now imagine setting up the computer to back up to the cloud while downloading an HD movie to watch, and having the backup completed before the film's title sequence is finished.
|Type of connection||Maximum download speed||Maximum upload speed|
|ADSL broadband||Up to 17Mb||Up to 1Mb|
|Standard fibre||Up to 76Mb||Up to 20Mb|
|Virgin Media cable broadband||Up to 200Mb||Up to 20Mb|
|Ultrafast FTTP||Up to 1Gb||Up to 1Gb|
It stays fast at peak times
Fibre optic cables can not only carry more data, but they can do it with very little loss of signal, which affects the speed and quality of our connection.
Superfast broadband is mostly supplied using fibre to the cabinet (FTTC), then another kind of cable or wire from there to our home: ISPs using the Openreach network use copper, while Virgin Media use coaxial cable.
As we explain in more detail in this guide, the signal degradation is worst over copper, increasingly so with distance; Ofcom say that customers more than 300m from an Openreach fibre cabinet "can expect their speeds to be less than half the maximum possible".
Virgin's hybrid fibre coaxial network is much more efficient, hence their higher top speeds - but obviously having the fibre cable come as close to the main socket in our house as possible will result in the least drop off.
Sharing with the neighbours
It also means we're sharing our connection with far fewer premises, and therefore less likely to suffer from problems related to contention, the term for how much user demand there is on the available bandwidth.
When Hyperoptic launched in 2011, cofounder Boris Ivanovic said that customers could probably expect to be sharing a 1Gb link with between 50 and 100 other users - compared with "about 2,000" on a typical ADSL broadband connection.
Furthermore, he suggested that the speed with which customers can do things online means that they're less likely to need those speeds for very long at any one time, freeing up bandwidth for someone else.
Basically, with a 1Gb connection, people have the greatest chance of getting the maximum speed available to them, with the minimum chance of inconvenience.
It doesn't cost as much we might think
There's a reason 1Gb broadband is limited in availability at the moment, and that's the cost of building the network. The European Commission estimate [pdf] that it would cost around £25 billion to provide 1GB broadband to every home in the UK (and €249 billion for the whole EU).
But once it's built, it's there - and the ISPs whose main focus is FTTP broadband are remarkably competitive.
Here's what the UK's biggest ultrafast providers charge for their unlimited (or most generous) 1Gb packages, compared with the fastest most widely available deals from the national ISPs:
We take a broader - and, we hope, illustrative - look at the cost of going superfast versus going ultrafast in this feature comparing Virgin Media with Hyperoptic.
The other thing to remember is that just because having pure fibre means we can get up to 1Gb, its providers recognise that we might not want, or be able to afford, full throttle broadband.
A couple of the ultrafast providers listed in the table above offer slower, cheaper, packages over their FTTP networks.
Gigaclear and Sky each offer a 50Mb entry level package; Hyperoptic go one further by offering a pretty much guaranteed 20Mb connection for about the same price as their rivals charge for standard ADSL:
...and it's future proof
Cast your mind back a decade, to 2007. Connections of 10Mb were only available from a few providers, and Virgin Media's 50Mb service was about to enter trials.
Fast forward to summer 2015, when BT introduced their Ultra HD TV package, available only to those with a connection capable of at least 44Mb - which, they said, would allow for two simultaneous ultra HD streams without the rest of the house grinding to a halt.
As fibre has become more widespread people have realised how much more they can do with their broadband connections, and we're only getting more demanding.
But we've already hit the speed limit of standard FTTC, and even with developments like BT's G.fast wringing higher speeds out of the existing copper network, it'll continue to suffer from degradation and interference - and there will be a limit to how fast it can realistically go.
By contrast, once a pure fibre network is built, we can "dial up the speeds ad infinitum", as former minister for the digital economy Ed Vaizey put it; his successor Matthew Hancock has since called for full FTTP to become the norm in the UK.
Even Virgin Media, whose network has the potential to go considerably faster thanks to advances in the technology it uses, recognise the importance of increasing their FTTP footprint.
Last year they said at least a quarter of the four million or so new connections they were planning as part of Project Lightning would be FTTP; they've since announced plans to make at least two million of them full fibre.
The point is that while we might not need or want 1Gb broadband now, having a connection that can go that fast now means no worries about whether it'll be able to keep up with development and demand in the future.
How to get it
Convinced enough of the case for 1Gb broadband that the next question is "how do I get it?"
Sadly, it really comes down to living in the right place, which tend to fall into one of two categories: high density urban developments, and rural communities unwilling to wait for BT to get around to installing Infinity in the area.
There are a few cities in the UK that have small ultrafast residential networks, but these are distinctly rare.
Even BT's own FTTP products, Infinity 3 and 4, which offer speeds of up to 300Mb, are only available in very limited areas where the exchanges and cabinets have been upgraded, and at significant cost to the customer.
We've a full guide to who provides up to 1Gb broadband and where, here.
For those who don't live in an area served by an ultrafast provider just yet, we've a guide to getting the fastest broadband available here.