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Full fibre broadband in 2020: A small business checklist

(Image credit: Image Credit: Chaitawat / Shutterstock)

Small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy. But many are struggling with slow, unreliable broadband based on part-copper lines, putting them at a considerable disadvantage compared to their full fibre-festooned competitors, especially those located in major cities. It stymies their growth potential and impedes entrepreneurs from setting up businesses in areas of the country saddled with substandard connectivity.

The challenge is to ensure that small businesses, wherever they are located, have access to the high-speed gigabit connections that will encourage innovation and drive the UK’s digital economy forward.

A whole host of full fibre providers are working tirelessly up and down the country to bring gigabit-capable full fibre connectivity (also known as FTTP or fibre to the premises) to businesses located in harder to reach areas – both rural communities and towns and cities - that have been left behind by national broadband providers.

If you work in a small business with slow, unreliable connectivity, here are some tips to help you navigate the acronyms and tech talk - and plan for a full fibre future.

Why a full fibre broadband service is best

The difference between full-fibre and part-copper lines (aka FTTC or fibre to the cabinet) is substantial. In a nutshell, FTTC broadband uses a full fibre-optic connection from your ISP to the green cabinets you see in many streets, and then copper wire for what is known as ‘the last mile’, from the cabinet to your premises. A full fibre service uses fibre-optic lines directly to your premises, making it the fastest type of fibre on the market.

Why should you care? Well, with a part-copper line, you will suffer from variable bandwidth and an asymmetric service, meaning that it is faster for downloads than for uploads. These connections are also subject to contention with other network users, meaning that the more people using the network, the slower and less reliable your connection will be. Ever wondered why your Skype video calls work just fine at some times of the day but not at others? Now you know.

By contrast, with a full fibre connection your business benefits from identical upload and download speeds and no contention with other users. Video calls, voice over IP and cloud-based business tools all work far more smoothly so you can banish the buffering and spinning wheel problems of old.

What type of full fibre connection?

Digging a little deeper into the technology, it is worth knowing that not all full fibre broadband connections are created equal. There are two main types: Active Ethernet and Passive Ethernet (known as PON or Passive Optical Network).

Interestingly, ISPs use Active Ethernet to connect their business to the internet. This is because Active Ethernet networks deliver a dedicated link to every individual customer, maximising throughput and providing a highly reliable, high-performance connection with no contention. By contrast, in a PON-based network, the fibre-optic beam from the cabinet is split between customers on a particular segment of the network, causing contention. 

While this might both literally and figuratively seem like splitting hairs, if you want a Porsche-equivalent experience – the ability to accelerate in busy traffic into a gap on the road ahead faster, saving precious seconds – then Active Ethernet is superior. Its lower latency leads to a more responsive experience in existing and emerging bandwidth-intensive business applications. And because you have your own dedicated line, you can grow into your service over time, without being restricted by what other customers on the same service are doing.

Buyer beware: ‘Superfast’ or ‘fibre’ broadband is different to full fibre

It is tempting to see an advert for a competitively priced ‘superfast fibre’ broadband package and sign up. But not all fibre is created equal. Despite an outcry from full fibre providers, ISPs are still permitted by the Advertising Standards Authority to advertise services that use copper lines for the last mile as ‘fibre’.

In 2020, relying on an inferior part-copper broadband service to power your business is like using a pony and trap for customer deliveries rather than a modern van. Ask your ISP whether they offer a full fibre/FTTP service that will serve your business both now and in the future. If they don’t, look for one that does.

What if your area does not yet have full fibre?

You are doubtless aware from recent media coverage that there are large swathes of the country where full fibre broadband is not yet available.

If you are based in an area without full fibre, it may be that a broadband provider is readying plans to roll out its full fibre service soon. Check local media and social media, watch out for marketing flyers in the post, speak to other businesses and home workers in the vicinity, and contact local community leaders such as councillors and your local MP to find out the state of play.

If you’re in luck and full fibre connectivity is in the offing, contact the broadband provider and register your interest. In general, the sooner they reach a tipping point in terms of customer sign ups, the faster they will be able to roll out.

If there is no sign of a provider gearing up for a full fibre roll out in your area, then why not team up with other local businesses, people who work from home and other power users and lobby your local council and a broadband provider or two? In a growing number of areas, you will find local, community-focused providers whose overarching mission is to help underserved communities.      The more people on your list the better, of course, because rolling out full fibre broadband is an expensive business.

Inside the office: wired or Wi-Fi?

Once you have selected a full fibre provider, you need to consider in-office connection speeds. For the ultimate experience and maximum upload/download speeds, it’s best to connect your computers/devices directly to a wired connection point using an Ethernet cable.

If you are relying on a Wi-Fi connection, remember that speed and quality decrease significantly when travelling through obstacles such as brick walls. And as your connection speed increases to 1Gbps and then 10Gbps as providers start to offer these greater speeds, the positioning of the Wi-Fi devices in relation to the router becomes ever more critical for sustaining a fast and reliable connection and avoiding Wi-Fi bottlenecks. If Wi-Fi is your preferred option, then talk to your ISP prior to installation about the optimal siting of the router and Wi-Fi boosters.

With gigabit-capable services rapidly coming on stream, and 10Gbps services not far behind, full fibre is already proving to be a game changer for those lucky small businesses that already have it. Ensuring that your broadband provider can offer you a future-proofed network that will last for decades should definitely be a business priority in 2020.

Evan Wienburg, co-founder and CEO, Truespeed