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The Fibre Fallacy: are businesses getting what they pay for?

office meeting using fibre broadband
(Image credit: Getty)

With companies generating more data than ever, running more business applications through the cloud, and needing to be connected to more of their workers remotely, a business internet connection that can provide greater data speeds with consistent performance and reliability is now a prerequisite to running a successful business.

Twenty years ago, as businesses began to explore the potential of digital business and ecommerce, if a company wanted to deploy an internet connection that would guarantee greater data bandwidth, they would usually have to approach their country's main telecoms operator, or one of a small number of alternatives, to buy a dedicated “leased line”. Nowadays internet connectivity is essential to even the most basic of business processes and dependency on the connection is more critical. 

But when the industry promotes a vast range of technologies as “fast” and “fibre” the marketing hype is clouding the facts – how do you know what you are actually getting for your money and is it what your business actually needs.

Leased lines

In the days of leased lines everything was simple, if not expensive. They provided an always on dedicated service, came with service level agreements (SLAs) and delivered bandwidth speeds much faster than what was available over the public switched telephone network (PSTN), that homes and the majority of other businesses relied upon. But such connections were very expensive, and often took a very long time to set up.

Since then, of course, we have seen the wider roll-out of broadband services, for both consumers and businesses, and the leased line business has become more specialised. Many of the standard broadband services now available are much faster than some of the basic leased lines used by large companies 20 years ago.

However, both consumers and businesses are generating much more data overall, so the faster speeds and data capacity are very much needed.

Copper broadband

Most broadband lines today still rely on parts of the old copper network that formed the PSTN, and large parts of it have been in the ground for up to 100 years. And for many premises, the last part of the network that comes into their site is copper based, often known as the ‘last mile’

This is important as the the technology used over copper is often affected by the distance and quality of the wire, leading to slower inconsistent speeds and lower levels of reliability. 

And yet as these services are commonly delivered using fibre until the ‘last mile’ is reached the marketing and advertising of these broadband services today as ‘fibre broadband’ (FTTC) is either confusing, or deliberately misleading.

A large number of organisations who have bought business broadband services may find they are neither as fast as they anticipated, with speeds often advertised as ‘up to’, nor backed with the SLAs that they may have hoped for. In most cases, they almost certainly don't work like leased lines, which provided a dedicated and consistent internet connection to business users.

Fibre broadband

When it comes to fibre broadband, companies have to be aware of differences in reliability, differences in performance and differences in speed.

Much of this depends on the method of delivery to the premises, with these three types of broadband coming into play:

  1. FTTC = Fibre to the Cabinet.  Sold as “fibre broadband”. Delivered to the local cabinet in the street as fibre, however then onwards to the premises over a copper network
  2. FTTP = Fibre to the Premises.  Also sold as “fibre broadband” or “full fibre”.  Most FTTP in the UK is delivered over GPON (Gigabit Passive Optical Network). This is a shared access fibre network
  3. Dedicated Fibre aka Fibre Ethernet = dedicated fibre to the premises for the sole use of that customer

The “fibre” broadband that businesses are still largely reliant on has to share connectivity over networks that are “contended”. Once data is travelling around the networks to and from your buildings, it is most probably competing with other people's data to get to where it needs to be. It can therefore be slowed down further as it doesn't have a dedicated connection from one point to the other.

In the UK, for instance, currently, the fastest generally available broadband speed offered to homes and businesses – as part of standard packages – is 1,000Mbps (megabits per second), otherwise known as “Gigabit”. On paper, this looks very fast when compared to the first broadband networks that were launched 20 years ago – which initially only offered around 500Kbps (kilobits per second) or just half a megabit per second.

However, as mentioned there are now far more broadband users than 20 years ago and more data is being carried over those contended networks. On top of this, Gigabit capacity is very rarely ever reached, because many providers either “throttle” the capacity that is offered to users to save space on their own networks, or the level of demand from other users limits speed and capacity.

A tenth of what you pay for

It is not unusual for Gigabit broadband users to actually only have under 100Mbps of speed and capacity at their disposal – about one tenth of what they are effectively paying for. If you're sharing such links in a building, that can pose a serious problem if many people are using the service at the same time.

And this is at the top end of commonly used broadband services! A Gigabit service is usually sold as that, or perhaps it is sold as FTTP (fibre-to-the-premise) or Ultrafast. This usually means that the connection to the provider's network involves a faster fibre strand – and not slower copper wiring - going into your building. Such a service is also marketed as “full-fibre”.

Do you know what type of connection you have? It will dictate what type of data speeds you are potentially capable of getting – but that’s not the full story.

Full-fibre delusion

It is an interesting question, as a recent research paper from UK service provider G.Network found that 59 per cent of business leaders said they had “full-fibre” broadband connections, even though they are only currently available to 16 percent of commercial premises.

Bearing in mind the network contention your data has to mitigate, whether you have a FTTP or FTTC connection, the one way you can be sure to get what you are paying for - in terms of speed and capacity - is to buy a dedicated Fibre Ethernet service.

Back to the future

By understanding all the options, business owners can make a more info

Such a service, from a specialist provider, delivers a dedicated fibre connection to premises for the sole use of that organisation – no copper and no contention involved. Remember those leased lines? It's rather like back to the future, isn't it? But providers actively selling Fibre Ethernet connections promise that such a solution is not only more scalable and flexible than those leased lines, but much cheaper too.

Such a solution should also come with all the SLA items you will need for your business as well, whether that's guaranteed speeds to support data heavy applications like data analytics, lower latency connectivity (no data jitter) for real time voice and video conferencing, no data packet losses on the network, flexible contracts, scalable line upgrades in response to business growth, speedy fixes, and service credits when things go wrong.

Key takeaways

Too many providers are pushing the benefits of “fibre” but what are we really getting?

We need:

  1. More widespread knowledge and transparency of the different technology types
  2. More transparency over whether it is a shared or dedicated fibre network/connection
  3. More transparency of performance criteria in the form of SLAs – latency/delay, delay variation (jitter) and data packet loss.  Typically, it is not possible or more difficult to provide these on shared network technology. Dedicated fibre will provide guarantees. However even with this type of service, one provider may be able to offer better guarantees than another depending on the quality and design of their network. Note that some may quote averages, rather than maximum levels of delay and packet loss. An average is no good to anyone!
  4. More transparency over reliability criteria in the form of Service SLAs providing target uptime and fix times etc.
  5.  Ideally, these SLAs should be backed by service credits. Is the supplier willing to put their money where their mouth is.

Dominic Norton is Sales Director at Spitfire Network Services.

Dominic Norton
Dominic Norton

Dominic Norton is the sales director for Spitfire Network Services. Dominic is responsible for Direct and Partner Sales at Spitfire Network Services, delivering innovative and award-winning business voice and data networking solutions. Dominic leads a growing sales team that liaise with 6000 customers and 500 channel partners. Dominic has held positions with Racal Telecom, BT Syntegra and Commander Telecom. After starting his career with Spitfire Network Services in 1998, Dominic returned in 2004 and was named sales director in 2018.