What is broadband and how does it work?
Broadband is a connection to the internet. It is much easier and faster to use than the older telephone-and-modem method, since there is no need to dial up and wait to be connected.
Broadband can be delivered over your phone line, via cable or by satellite. The connection carries large volumes of information at high speeds to your computer or other device, allowing you to view websites, text, graphics, music and videos – any content that can be found online.
What is an internet service provider?
As if all the technology wasn’t confusing enough, the language associated with it can be equally mysterious. An internet service provider is in fact the same thing as a broadband provider – that is, a company that provides a broadband connection for its customers.
Frequently called ‘providers’ for short, these businesses generally offer both standard broadband via your home telephone line, and also faster fibre optic broadband, which is delivered using the new network of fibre optic cables currently being laid across the country.
What are the benefits of broadband?
A broadband connection is always on (as long as your router is plugged into the mains), giving constant and near-instant internet access. The way the information is delivered means that even if your broadband is carried on your phone line, it won’t be engaged, so you can still make and receive phone calls while you are online.
As well as using the internet as a source of information (you can find out everything from local cinema times to a destination for your next holiday), it can also be a source of learning and, essentially, entertainment.
With a good broadband connection you can enjoy watching TV shows and films at a time of your choosing, play online games, and enjoy catching up with distant friends and family during a video phone call.
The invention of broadband has sparked a rise in home working as the fast connections make it much more efficient and feasible to work remotely – whether at home, on the train or in a café. It has also transformed the way businesses operate, giving them a potentially global audience.
The most popular way to get broadband is to sign up to a contract and pay a monthly fee. Many providers now offer unlimited data, which means you can do as much as you like online without being charged extra. If you are worried about not knowing how much data you might use, an unlimited package is a safe bet.
What speed do I need?
The speed of your broadband connection depends on many factors, including the provider and service you choose, and where in the country you live. The average broadband speed in the UK is 28.9Mbps (megabits per second – the measurement of data transmission speed), according to Ofcom.
Broadband providers are upgrading networks all the time for faster speeds and improved internet performance. The fastest widely available speed is currently 200Mbps from Virgin Media. In general, you will pay more for a faster speed, but you will have a smoother connection. For more on speed, read our Who provides the fastest broadband? guide.
The difference between download and upload speeds
Download speeds determine how fast you can consume and access data from the internet, such as browsing websites and downloading films. Upload speeds determine how fast you can send and share information, such as sending emails and uploading pictures. The speeds you see advertised refer to download speed.
Broadband speeds can vary considerably
Broadband providers advertise their speeds as being ‘up to’ a certain level – this is because the speeds vary so much that advertising a fixed speed would be misleading.
There is generally quite a difference between the advertised speed and the actual speed that you are likely to get – it is likely to be much slower – so the adverts should always be treated with caution. The most accurate way of discovering what speed you are likely to get where you live is to use our postcode checker below.
You’re most likely to be able to get standard broadband (also known as ADSL, or Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) since it is available to 99.9% of homes in the UK. It carries data through copper telephone lines, with one frequency used to carry to calls, and the other used for data.
The downside of standard broadband is that copper lines do not handle distances well and consequently, speeds are determined by the distance from your house to the local telephone exchange, which makes it a bit of a lottery.
To speed up broadband even further, networks have developed a superfast connection using fibre optic technology. It delivers speeds at up to five times more quickly than standard broadband, meaning websites load quickly, pictures upload quickly and you can watch films and TV through the internet without any stopping and starting due to a slow connection.
It delivers broadband through cables made up of thousands of fibres as thin as human hair. The construction of the cables (read more in our What is fibre optic broadband? guide) means superfast consistent speeds, whatever the distance to your local exchange.
Speeds are measured in Mbps (megabits per second) and are determined by how much data your broadband connection will allow you to download within one second – the higher the number, the faster your connection.
Residents in remote locations unable to get a useable standard or fibre connection can find a solution in satellite broadband. Put simply, if you can see the sky, you can probably get satellite broadband, so it is available to pretty much anyone, anywhere.
Since the broadband is delivered by satellite, you don’t have to rely on a phone line. Tooway is the main satellite broadband provider in the UK and you can discover more about the service in our impartial guide.
As standard, broadband is delivered from the router to your computer by an Ethernet cable. The invention of wi-fi technology now allows devices to connect to the internet wirelessly using radio waves instead, which is far more flexible and user-friendly. Routers have different ranges but tend to average around 20 metres indoors.
Wi-fi gives the option to connect several devices to the internet at once from different areas of your home. So for example, you could have a games console in the living room; a laptop in the office and a smartphone in the kitchen – all connected wirelessly to the internet from a router in the hallway.
Speeds can be slower when using wi-fi so it is advisable to use a cabled connection for downloading large data files, such as HD films. Plus, the more devices you have connected at once, the slower the service will be as the speed is split between them all.
Wi-fi is also less secure and more vulnerable to access from intruders, so always be sure to set a strong password to prevent others from using or ‘piggybacking’ your connection.
Can I get broadband on the move?
Broadband delivered to your home is known as a fixed-line connection, but it's also possible to access the internet on the move through mobile broadband. Advances in technology, the increasing number of public wi-fi hotspots and the expansion of 4G mobile networks are all providing an easy way for consumers to get online while away from home.
Public wi-fi hotspots
If you have a wi-fi enabled device such as a laptop, tablet or smartphone, you can connect to the millions of public wi-fi hotspots dotted throughout the UK. The hotspots are operated by broadband providers and some can be accessed for free, while others charge a fee.
You might find that access to certain hotspots is included in your broadband or mobile phone subscription. BT broadband customers for example, have free access to five million wi-fi hotspots throughout the country, while Virgin Media offers free wi-fi on the London Underground to Virgin Mobile, Virgin Media, O2, Three, EE and Vodafone customers.
You can also create your own hotspot with a mobile wi-fi device. EE for example, offers a mobile wi-fi hub that can wirelessly connect up to 10 tablets or laptops, on a pay monthly contract or pay-as-you-go basis.
These finger-sized gadgets can be slotted into the USB port of your laptop or desktop computer to provide internet access on the go. You can pre-load them with credit with pay-as-you-go, or take out a contract and pay month by month.
3G and 4G
The third and fourth generations of mobile broadband technology – known as 3G and 4G – allow you to connect to the internet on the move using a smartphone or tablet. The newest and fastest option is 4G, which you can find more about in our Is 4G broadband any good? guide.
You can either take out a contract or decide to pay-as-you-go (PAYG) with a mobile phone provider, and either choose to get a new device or just buy a SIM card to put in your existing handset or tablet. You can do everything you would on a home broadband connection, from downloading music, to watching catch up TV and checking on local cinema times.