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What is broadband?

By Dan Howdle | Thursday, October 8th 2020

Once the domain of the tech nerd, broadband (or the internet in general) is something most of us now take for granted. It's become so 'background' to our lives it's widely regarded as a utility, like electricity or gas. Something that works in the background, and so long as it is working as it should, barely given it a second thought.

But what it is, how it works, the types available, the jargon, the speed, and what you really need are all valid things to wonder about. Wonder no more.

What is broadband?

This might seem like an idiotic question. A bit like 'What is gravity?' or 'What is electricity?'. But really, when you think about it, most of us couldn't provide a satisfactory answer to any of those questions. Our ideas of what something is more often than not end up being what they do. What is electricity? Well, it's the stuff that powers your devices.

So here's what broadband actually is: Once upon a time we used to send Morse code telegrams to one another. The code was a series of dots and dashes, short beeps and long beeps. The best operators could manage about 20 words per minute. Broadband is not a million miles away from this antique tech. It carries signals made up of code, over lines and through the airwaves, but does so much, much faster.

The 'broad' in broadband refers to the wide range of frequencies the signal can be sent over simultaneously. If you imagine the net result of sending thousands of telegrams via morse code at the same time, you will understand that the 'broader' the broadband, the faster information can be transferred. Broadband, then, which evolved from 'dial-up' or 'narrowband' has become the de facto term for fast data delivery via a network.

Types of broadband

Broadband does not exist in one pure form when it comes to the technology behind it. After all, if broadband is merely the transmission of information over many frequencies simultaneously, there are a number of ways to accomplish this from a technology and infrastructure point of view. Cables in the ground, telephone wires spanning poles, through the airwaves via a mobile network, or even from space via a satellite.

Here we will take a brief look at the different technologies used to enable broadband and how they differ from one another.

  • ADSL – Uses just copper telephone lines to deliver a broadband signal. Copper (as opposed to fibre optic) limits the speeds possible, which is why ADSL broadband generally maxes out at around 17Mbps, with an average or 10-11Mbps
  • FTTC fibre – Fibre to the cabinet broadband uses a mixture of cable types. Fibre optic (glass core) cables as far as the cabinet on the street, then copper cabling from the cabinet to your house. Fibre broadband like this is limited to around 75Mbps
  • FTTP fibre – Fibre to the premises uses fibre optic cables for 100% of the network. This enables much faster speeds than FTTC fibre. FTTP fibre commonly offers speeds of up to 1,000Mbps (1Gbps), but is not widely available
  • 4G/5G broadband – Is actually fibre broadband for most of the journey (to the mast). Then from the mast to your mobile, tablet, MiFi device or 4G/5G home router, the signal is delivered over the airwaves. Some 5G packages can deliver data at around 300-500Mbps
  • Satellite broadband – Is delivered from space to a satellite dish on your house. It's not particularly fast, maxing out at about 33Mbps. It's also expensive and suffers horribly from latency. It is considered a last resort for those who live too remotely to get fast connectivity by any other means
  • Site to site – The rarest of all broadband breeds, site to site is where a transmitter is set up in a central location, usually in a village, usually on its highest structure, which is usually a church spire. A receiver is then placed on the side of your home pointing at it. Very few locations in the UK offer this type

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Downloads, uploads and megabits

If you've never had to choose a broadband deal, or simply never given much thought to what the various specifications actually mean, this is the section for you. What, after all, is a megabit exactly, and how on Earth are you suppose to know how many of them you need?

What are megabits?

A megabit is a measure of data. Think about your home address, for example. If that were one piece of data, if it were a 'bit', a megabit would be a thousand copies of your address. When looking at a broadband package, the 'Mb' number you see quoted as your expected average speed is a little more than that, though. It really means 'megabits per second', or Mbps.

Shortening it this way does add to the confusion somewhat. But just think of it like this: The number of megabits per second is the amount of data you can receive (in the case of download speeds) or send (in the case of upload speeds) in one second. The higher the number, the quicker it will be to do things on the internet, primarily downloading data.

What are download speeds?

The number you will see quoted on a broadband package always applies to download speed. Download speeds apply to how fast you can move data between a remote server (on the internet) and your device (phone, computer, set-top box, whatever). Download speeds are more important than upload speeds because apart from posting the odd photo on Instagram or Facebook, most of us rarely upload files of any significant size.

What are upload speeds?

Upload speeds are the reverse – they govern how long it will take to move data from your device to a remote server on the internet. For example, 'uploading' a photo to Facebook. We use upload very rarely compared to how frequently we use download, which is why in most cases upload speeds offered in popular broadband packages are a fraction of download speeds.

Available broadband speeds

You can't simply have any speed you desire when choosing a broadband package. You will be limited by what's available in terms of the fastest speed you can get where you live. And you will be limited by the fact that broadband providers offer a range of package 'levels' you will have to choose between. Here's a breakdown of speeds available, what you can do with them and who offers them. Bear in mind that (especially with the very fast speeds) not all of them are widely available across the UK.

  • 10-11Mbps – The common average for an ADSL broadband connection. It's fast enough to stream HD TV and movies to one TV, but not for UHD 4K, and it will buckle in a household with multiple users
  • 30-50Mbps – The speed of entry-level fibre broadband from providers on the Openreach network (everyone except Virgin Media). It's plenty for small households and will be enough to stream 4K video but only to one TV
  • 60-65Mbps – Is the upper limit for FTTC fibre broadband packages on the Openreach network. It's enough for larger households, but will struggle if everyone's streaming to different TVs at once or someone in the household is downloading videogames constantly
  • 100-150Mbps – Is both one of the lower speeds offered by Virgin Media (which runs its own network) and the speed offered on BT 'ultrafast', which is not widely available yet. It is more than enough for most households, even busy ones with multiple televisions and users
  • 200-362Mbps – Only Virgin Media offers speeds in this range. We're getting into 'you probably don't need it, but it's nice to have' territory here. More than enough for any household, even if there are ten of you
  • 516Mbps – Was until very recently Virgin Media's top speed. Now it also offers its Gig1 service which is twice as quick. Suffice it to say that 516Mbps is far more than anyone actually needs. Whether you 'want' it, though? That's up to you
  • 900Mbps to 1Gbps – Is the purview of the few. Virgin Media's Gig1 service is your best chance at getting 'gigabit' speeds. There are also smaller providers such as Hyperoptic (rarely available), and KCOM (if you happen to live in or near Hull). No one 'needs' internet this fast. Which is why this is the package some of us have here at Cable.co.uk (wink)

Choosing a broadband provider

Speed is one consideration when looking at broadband as a whole – as a package. But there are other things to consider besides.

Price

Fast broadband is great, but there's no point spending more than you need to. If there are only one or two of you in your household, getting Virgin Media's Gig1 service might mean you have 'the best', but it'll also be costing you more than you need to spend. Think about your budget and try to balance that against what you actually need. It'll save you money.

Equipment/router

Broadband providers provide you a free router when you sign up. This is the device that sends your broadband signal around your home both over cables (should you choose to wire devices directly) and over wifi. But not all routers are created equal, with some (especially those from the more popular providers such as BT, Sky, Virgin Media, TalkTalk and Vodafone) being far more capable than others (often from budget providers).

Signal range is usually the biggest differentiator, so if your home is small – a flat, say – you can probably get away with a budget provider who will give you a budget router more readily than someone with a five-bedroom detached property. If you're unsure, there are plenty of provider router reviews out there to read.

TV bundles

Do you just want broadband and a phone line? Or do you want a TV package or even a mobile deal bundled in? Many providers offer the whole lot these days and you can save money by bundling all your services into one package. Something to consider. You can always add TV or a mobile package later on, but if you want to bundle it, bear in mind your provider may make you sign a brand new contract for the whole lot, committing you to another 12 to 18 months.

Contract length

These are usually 12 or 18 months, but in some cases you can find contracts of up to two years. Once into your contract you won't be able to leave unless there is a fault your provider can't fix or they raise the price of your package. If you leave early you will have to pay termination fees, which often amount to the total left to pay till the end of the contract. Consider contract length carefully.

Special offers

If you've considered all other factors, this can be the thing that determines your ultimate choice. What sweeteners are they offering for signing up? Providers will often offer you cashback or free gifts for joining, but you'll have to see which providers are offering what on a given day as this changes all the time. Also worth bearing in mind that you'll often have to wait up to 90 days into your contract before you can claim your cash or gift.

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Frequently asked questions

Is broadband and wifi the same thing?

Sort of. But more precisely, broadband is the technology that brings internet connectivity into your home and wifi is the technology used by your router to broadcast it around your home. People often use these terms interchangeably, but technically speaking that's not quite right.

What is broadband in simple terms?

Broadband is a great many signals sent concurrently over a wide frequency range to send and receive packets of data to and from the internet, either in your home, at work or elsewhere. The greater the number of concurrent signals (or the 'broader' the frequency range) the faster your connection will be.

What is the cheapest way to get broadband?

Steal it from your neighbour? We're kidding of course. The cheapest way to get it is going to be the cheapest deal you can find. That changes day to day, and also remember that 'cheapest' isn't always the same as 'best value'.

Can I get broadband for free?

No. Apart from taking your laptop outside with you and finding a free public wifi hotspot, broadband cannot be had for free.

What broadband speed do I need?

As a general rule, you should factor 10Mbps for every household member who uses the internet, then add another 10Mbps for every person who is either a gamer or is using a 4K TV to stream video.

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