The broadband world is full of confusing jargon. So if you’re struggling to tell your megabits from your megabytes or your MiFis from your wifis, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve grouped terms into five categories to make it all a little easier to digest.
Types of broadband
- 4G – The fourth generation of mobile network technology, 4G is what allows you to get online using a mobile phone, dongle or Mi-Fi device. It also offers an alternative to home broadband. Also called LTE, which stands for Long-Term Evolution.
- ADSL – Stands for Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line. This is standard broadband delivered over a copper telephone line. Download speeds tend to be faster the closer you live to your local telephone exchange, but average out at about 10 or 11Mbps.
- ADSL2+ – a version of ADSL that delivers faster broadband speeds, up to 24Mbps, over the same old copper telephone lines. Still slows dramatically the further you are from the exchange.
- Broadband – A high-speed internet connection, which can be delivered in a number of ways but is distinct from the old dial-up or ‘narrowband’ connections.
- Cable broadband – Broadband delivered over a coaxial cable that can also be used to deliver TV services. The UK’s only cable broadband provider, Virgin Media, uses a type of coaxial cables and fibre broadband (a combination known as Hybrid Fibre Coaxial or HFC) to provide its broadband and TV services.
- Dial-up or narrowband – Hardly, if ever, used in the UK anymore but it’s how we got online in the 1990s. It’s internet access via a modem that literally dials up the provider over a phone line, so you can’t use the internet and the phone at the same time.
- Fibre optic broadband – Broadband delivered over fibre optic cables, capable of much faster speeds than ADSL. Pulses of light are sent down plastic or glass threads, transferring data at high speed. Most UK broadband connections use fibre optic cables between the telephone exchange and the street cabinet. Broadband deals you see offering an average of 36Mbps or 63Mbps will be fibre packages.
- Fixed line – Any broadband delivered using a physical cable, such as fibre or ADSL. The alternative would be mobile or satellite broadband, both of which transmit data wirelessly.
- Gigabit broadband – A broadband service capable of achieving speeds of at least 1Gbps, (1,000Mbps). This is extremely fast and there are only a handful of places in the UK where you get can gigabit speeds.
- Leased line – A dedicated connection typically between a business premises and the local exchange. Leased lines offer a symmetrical connection and aren’t subject to contention as they aren’t shared with other users.
- LTE – Stands for Long Term Evolution. Another term for 4G mobile broadband.
- Mobile broadband – High-speed internet access delivered via a mobile network, as opposed to a fixed line.
- Satellite broadband – Broadband delivered by satellite. Most often used in remote, rural locations as it doesn’t rely on any fixed lines.
- SDSL – Stands for Symmetrical Digital Subscriber Line. Achieves equal upload and download speeds, unlike an ADSL connection, but is still delivered over copper telephone wires.
- Superfast broadband – Defined by the UK Government as broadband offering speeds of at least 24Mbps and by Ofcom and the EU as a minimum of 30Mbps.
- Symmetrical and asymmetrical broadband – Most broadband services offer significantly higher download speeds than upload speeds – these are asymmetrical connections. Symmetrical broadband provides the same speed for uploads and downloads.
- Unlimited broadband – Broadband services with no download limit, meaning you can use as much data as you like.
- Ultrafast broadband – Typically refers to broadband services offering speeds of at least 100Mbps. This is the definition used by the UK Government, the EU and Openreach, although Ofcom defines ultrafast broadband as offering speeds of 300Mbps or more.
- Wireless broadband – Typically refers to a (most often fixed) broadband connection that you connect to wirelessly, via a wifi network. Can also refer to broadband that is delivered to your home wirelessly, like 4G.
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Common broadband terms
- Bandwidth – The capacity of a broadband connection, measured in bits per second. This does not refer to the time it take bits of data to travel from one location to another, rather it measures how much data can flow through a specific connection at any one time.
- Bitrate – The rate at which bits of data are transferred from one location to another. Broadband speeds are bitrates, generally measured in megabits per second.
- Bits and bytes – Broadband speeds are measured in bits and data amounts are measured in bytes. And they’re not the same size – a byte is eight times bigger than a bit.
- Broadband only – A broadband service that comes without a home phone service. There aren’t many about because broadband is often delivered over phone lines.
- Call rates – Also known as call charges, a tariff that tells you how much you’ll be charged for phone calls to different types of numbers. Calls to international numbers will typically cost more than calls to UK numbers, for example.
- Contention ratio – The number of broadband users sharing a connection. The higher the contention ratio, the more likely you are to experience slower speeds at peak times. Dedicated business broadband connections such as leased lines are often described as uncontended.
- Download limit – The amount of data you can download each month. These limits are set by the provider and going over them usually results in extra charges or reduced internet speed, although almost all broadband packages are now unlimited.
- Download speed – The speed at which data is downloaded, most often measured in megabits per second. Basic tasks such as browsing the web and sending emails can be done with a relatively slow download speed, but streaming Netflix will require a faster connection.
- Downloading/downstream – The transfer of data from the internet to a device. Downloading happens not only with the transfer of a file such as an image or a video, but every time you do something online, whether it’s visiting a website or streaming.
- Fair use policy/acceptable use policy – Most providers operate a fair use or acceptable use policy, even on packages that are described as unlimited. This policy is only really in place to allow the provider to act if someone is downloading huge amounts every day and it’s affecting other users.
- Gigabits (Gb) and Gigabytes (GB) – As with bits and bytes, gigabits are used to measure speeds and gigabytes are used to measure amounts of data. A gigabit is a thousand megabits, so a broadband speed described as 1Gbps is equal to 1,000Mbps. Mobile data packages are generally described in terms of amount of gigabytes of data you’ll be able to use in a month.
- ISP – Stands for Internet Service Provider and refers to companies that provide broadband services such as BT, Virgin Media and Sky.
- Kilobits (Kb) and Kilobytes (KB) – As with bits and bytes, kilobits are used to measure speeds and kilobytes are used to measure amounts of data. Very slow internet connections such as dial-up are described in kilobits per second (Kbps).
- MAC (code) – Migration Authorisation Code. You used to have to request one of these from your broadband provider when switching, but they’re no longer necessary.
- Megabits (Mb) and Megabytes (MB) – As with bits and bytes, megabits are used to measure speed and megabytes to measure amounts of data. Most broadband speeds are described in megabits per second (Mbps).
- Metered and unmetered billing – Metered billing is where you pay for what you use, as you do with your gas or electricity provider. Broadband contracts in the UK are unmetered, so you pay the same each month no matter how much you download (unless you are charged extra for phone calls).
- Monthly cost – The amount you pay a broadband provider each month for your broadband service, including any charges for additional services such as TV or anti-virus software.
- Network – Two or more computers linked together, allowing data to be shared between them.
- Quad-play – Refers to the bundling together of broadband, TV, home phone and mobile services.
- Service Level Agreement (SLA) – A contract between a service provider and an end user (consumer) that defines the level of service to be expected.
- Throttling – The intentional slowing down of an internet connection by a broadband provider. Typically happens at peak times when the network is busiest and to users who have contravened a fair use policy.
- Traffic – Network traffic is the amount of data moving across a network at a given time.
- Traffic management – The process of managing, controlling or reducing network traffic. It’s most often used at peak times to reduce congestion, but the majority of providers now say they don’t use it at all.
- Upload speed – The speed at which data is uploaded (or sent to the internet), most often measured in megabits per second (Mbps).
- Uploading/upstream – If you’re transferring data from your device to the internet, maybe by posting a picture to social media, sending an email with lots of attachments or playing a video game, you are uploading.
Broadband delivery and technology
- Backbone network – The part of a network that connects other networks together. In the case of a broadband network, this tends to be fibre optic cables capable of carrying large amounts of data
- Bluetooth – A wireless technology used for sending and receiving data over short distances using Ultra High Frequency (UHF) radio waves. One application of Bluetooth is to connect mobile phones to wireless headphones or speakers.
- Coaxial cable and HFC – Coaxial cables are used by cable broadband and TV providers like Virgin Media to deliver their services. Virgin uses coaxial cables to connect individual premises to the exchange. The rest of its network uses fibre optic cable and this combination is known as Hybrid Fibre Coaxial (HFC).
- FTTC – Fibre to the Cabinet. This is the most common type of broadband in use in the UK. Broadband is delivered using fibre optic cables as far as the street cabinet, but then copper phone wires are used to connect each individual premises to the cabinet.
- FTTP or FTTH – Fibre to the Premises, also called Fibre to the Home. Fibre optic cables are used to deliver broadband all the way from the exchange to individual properties without the use of copper wires, making this technology capable of much faster speeds than FTTC.
- G-fast – A broadband technology used by Openreach that makes it possible to achieve ultrafast speeds using FTTC connections.
- Internet of Things (IoT) – The interconnection of devices such as cars and home appliances via the internet, allowing them to interact and exchange data.
- IPTV – Internet Protocol Television. TV services provided over internet connections rather than using radio frequency. The TV services offered by BT, Virgin Media, Sky, TalkTalk and EE use IPTV technology, which uses a closed network that you can only access with proprietary equipment such as set-top boxes. As well as broadcasting digital channels, IPTV allows for the provision of catch-up services and video on demand.
- Local Loop Unbundling (LLU) – The process that allows multiple providers to use a single network. The local loop is the part of the network that connects your home to the exchange. The UK’s main broadband network is owned by Openreach but LLU allows providers such as Sky and TalkTalk to offer their services without building their own separate networks.
- MiFi – A MiFi device uses 4G to create a personal wifi hotspot. It acts like a router so you can access the hotspot using any device that can connect to wifi.
- Over-the-top technology (OTT) – The technical term for video on demand services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, NOW TV and BBC iPlayer. These services are streamed over the public internet directly to consumers rather than via any traditional broadcast platform, and can be watched on smartphones, laptops and tablets as well as on smart TVs.
- Powerline Communication (PLC) – Enables the transmission of broadband signals over existing national grid power cables. It’s been trialled in the UK but is expensive and produces high levels of interference.
- Streaming – Data (usually video or audio) transmitted as a steady, continuous flow that can be accessed by the end user at any time. Different to downloading, which requires you to have transferred a whole data file (a movie, song etc) before you can play it back. Streaming services include Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, NOW TV, Spotify and Apple Music.
- Telephone exchange and Digital Local Exchange (DLE) – The place where broadband and phone connections meet and connect to the provider’s network. With FTTC broadband, your distance from your local exchange can affect your broadband speed.
- Tethering – Sharing your mobile broadband connection with other devices. Some mobile providers allow tethering, which effectively turns your phone into a MiFi device.
- VoD – Video on Demand. A service that allows you to watch movies and TV shows whenever you like.
- VoIP – Voice over Internet Protocol. A service that allows you to make phone calls over the internet rather than over the traditional phone network. Calls to other VoIP users (such as Skype-to-Skype calls) are free, although you can also call standard telephone numbers.
- Wifi – The most common way of connecting your devices to the broadband in your home. Wifi is the name given to the wireless network created by your router, to which you can connect devices such as your phone, laptop, tablet and smart TV without the use of cables
- WiMAX – Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access. A wireless broadband technology envisioned as an alternative to cable and ADSL, but has turned out to be far less popular and more expensive to implement than LTE or wifi.
- Dongle – A USB device that plugs into your desktop computer or laptop and gives you access to 4G mobile internet.
- Ethernet – Ethernet cables can be used to connect some devices (mostly computers) directly to a router as an alternative to wifi. Wired connections offer more stable connections and are capable of faster download and upload speeds.
- Landline – The phone line that comes into your house, over which telephone and broadband services are delivered.
- Microfilter and Faceplate filter – Microfilters, also called splitters, are small devices that plug into your phone line and allow information to be split between voice and data. Faceplate filters can replace the front cover of a BT phone line extension box and are used to filter out line interference.
- Modem – The device that connects a computer or home network to the internet. As most devices now connect to a wireless router via wifi, routers and modems tend to be combined into a single device that we call a router.
- Router – Sometimes called a hub. Allows devices to connect to a home network generally via wi-fi or ethernet cable. Typically contains a modem, which allows it to connect to the internet. You will usually get a free router when you sign up to a broadband deal.
- ASA – The Advertising Standards Authority. Responsible for the regulation of advertising in the UK. Has made some big decisions with regards to broadband in recent years including banning the advertising of separate line rental costs and changing the way broadband speeds are promoted.
- Ofcom – The UK’s communications regulator. Protects the rights of consumers in the broadband market and ensures providers stick to its code of conduct, slapping them with big fines when they don’t. Has simplified the switching process and proposed automatic compensation for broadband customers when things go wrong.
- Openreach – Runs the UK’s national broadband infrastructure. All major UK broadband providers other than Virgin Media use the Openreach network. Became a legally separate company to BT in 2017 after pressure from Ofcom, but remains a part of the BT Group.
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