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How to boost your broadband speed

By Dan Howdle | Tuesday, September 22nd 2020

Slow broadband or wifi can be a tricky problem to pin down. Is it your provider? Is it a fault? Or are there aspects of the way it is set up that mean you're not getting the best speed available?

It could be any number of things, and depending on what it is, a number of solutions. In this guide we will take you through exactly how to figure out where the problem is, and then how exactly to address it.

Why is my broadband slow?

If your broadband is performing below your expectations, whether the speeds you're measuring don't match those promised, or slow downloads and a lot of buffering during streamed movies and TV shows, there are essentially three different points where the problem might exist. They are…

1. You're not on the fastest package available

This may seem very obvious, but a surprisingly small proportion of households subscribe to the fastest package available to them. Often, your existing provider will have a faster package available to you, and there's a 60% chance you can get Virgin Media, and with that being the case you will certainly be able to get faster speeds than you're getting from your existing provider. If you're not already on Virgin, of course.

You can use our broadband comparison tools to find out what packages and speeds are available where you live and compare pricing and features and more.

2. You live far from your nearest cabinet or exchange

All widely-available providers apart from Virgin Media operate on the Openreach network. Openreach is largely an FTTC network, which stands for fibre to the cabinet. What this means is that the fibre broadband it provides only runs as far as your nearest cabinet, with the remaining span between the cabinet and your home – called the 'last mile' – made up of copper telephone wire.

Copper degrades the broadband signal over distance. In laymen's terms that means your broadband slows down the longer the span of copper happens to be. So if you live a long way from your nearest cabinet, slow broadband is inevitable.

3. The way your broadband is set up in your home is sub-optimal

There are a number of factors to do with how and where your broadband router is set up that can contribute to the speeds being received by the devices around your home. We will talk about those in greater detail a bit further down, but for now bear in mind that the make-up of your home, your neighbours and your router can all play a part in speeds being slower than they could be.

How to check where the problem is

So how do you know where the problem is exactly, if all you really know is that, for example, your smartphone speedtest app is telling you your speed is a lot slower than what you thought you were paying for? Here are the steps you need to take.

  • If you're not on the fastest package – Check your broadband contract, check the speed you are subscribed to. If it is ADSL at around 10-11Mbps, or fibre broadband at around 30-50Mbps, you can definitely get a faster package. If you're already on your provider's top speed (usually 60-70Mbps), you may want to check if you can switch to Virgin Media, whose packages are much, much faster
  • If you live far from your nearest cabinet – This can be a hard thing to judge, but if your broadband has been a lot slower than expected or advertised it is either that you live far from the cabinet or there is a fault. You should double-check with your provider what speed you should be getting as they will be able to test your line and tell you the speed you should expect. Note that this will often differ from the advertised average
  • If your broadband is set up sub-optimally – Provided you know what speed you should be getting, and have contacted your provider to test your line and it has confirmed you are getting those speeds, if you are not getting that speed on the device you're using to test it, there is something wrong with the way you have your broadband set up. See the next section for more detail on this
  • If there is a fault – If you were getting a certain speed and then there is a sudden, unexplained drop, rather than ongoing, general slowness, it's likely a fault and you should reach out to your provider to get it resolved
family enjoying digital entertainment

How to boost your broadband speed

Taking it as read that you are on the fastest connection available to you, that there isn't a fault, and that you don't live more than a kilometre from your nearest cabinet, there is likely something lacking in the way you have your broadband set up. Or rather, there are aspects of your set-up that may be specific to your home, and that you may want to address.

Use a LAN cable wherever possible

Many people do not know this, but wifi is slow compared to a connection via a cable. To offer an extreme example, if you have a 516Mbps top-spec connection from Virgin Media, and you measure your speed on your smartphone, if might show you anything from 20 to 100Mbps. This is due to the limitations of a wireless signal. Likewise, on your more typical fast fibre connection, measurements over wifi will often show slower speeds than you are in actual fact getting.

Obviously a LAN (internet) cable can only really be plugged into a computer or laptop, or a few other devices such as set-top boxes. You can't plug one into your phone or tablet. Regardless, the best advice is to plug everything in via a cable where you can. This will minimise the stress on your wifi network and ensure those devices always get the best speed available.

Try a different channel on your router

Routers operate on a number of different frequencies. Like a radio, they send and receive a signal on a discrete frequency, and this frequency can be changed in your router settings. Each frequency is a 'channel' and is given a number, usually from 0 to 13. Sometimes slow wifi can be caused by your router operating on the same signal frequency as other routers within range – those of your neighbours.

Check your router manual or look online as to how to change the channel on your specific router – it's not complicated. Lots of routers these days have an 'auto' frequency setting. This setting checks other frequencies being used within range and automatically selects the channel with the least interference. Our experience, though, is that the router doesn't always get this right. Try manually changing through a few different channels and measuring what speed you get over wifi. You might be surprised how much it can be improved.

Minimise interference

There are a number of objects, devices and appliances in your home that can interfere with or outright block your wifi signal from passing through. With some of them there will be little you can do to prevent interference, but all are worth knowing about regardless. So consider…

  • Your neighbours' networks – Especially problematic in buildings with a lot of separate residences in close proximity, everyone's wifi network takes up a slice of the available airwaves. Where signals cross over, there is interference which can cause slower speeds
  • Other wireless networks in your home – If you have more than one network in your home, it is worth considering whether they might be interfering with one another
  • Bluetooth devices – Bluetooth operates on its own set of frequencies, but can sometimes interfere with wifi
  • Baby monitors and radios – Again, some such devices operate on the same spectrum as your broadband signal and so can cause interference
  • Microwave ovens – When switched on, these can bring wifi to its knees if the wifi signal has to cross the path of the oven to get to your device. Not a big concern as microwaves are rarely switched on, but worth knowing about
  • Fairy lights – If at Christmas time you suddenly can't get a decent wifi signal around the house, and you have a lot of fairy lights up, the two may well be connected. Try switching off your fairy lights and see how this affects your wifi speed
  • Thick masonry or timber walls – Will simply block wifi signal from passing through, or at the very least weaken it substantially
  • Metal flooring and underfloor heating – Any metal or metal mesh such as underfloor heating will act as a barrier, preventing signal from passing through it. Consider this when attempting to ascertain why your wifi is slow in certain rooms

Frequently asked questions

What is a good speed for broadband?

Ofcom recommends a minimum of 10Mbps for every household as a 'target' for the UK. And we are nearly there. However, a minimum is not necessarily 'good'. For most providers, and most households, you're going to be better off simply choosing the fastest speed available unless you're considering Virgin Media whose top speeds are extreme and somewhat expensive.

How can I check my broadband speed?

You can use our speed checker tool to check the speed you're getting. We recommend doing this via a computer or laptop plugged into your router directly via a cable, as your actual line speed and the speed of your wifi can be two completely different things, with wifi often a lot slower.

How do I find out what speed I should be getting?

When you signed up to your broadband deal, your provider will have told you what speed your line is capable of and the speed you are likely to receive on your specific package. If you've forgotten, call your provider and ask. Bear in mind the speed you should be getting is not necessarily the advertised speed.

Why is my broadband speed slower over wifi?

In a lab, in perfect conditions, wifi can be very fast indeed – easily capable of delivering 100% of any commercially available broadband package's speed to a wireless device via your router. However, in the real world, with walls and radio signals and neighbours' routers all vying for space amid the airwaves, wifi is generally a lot slower than the speed you should expect via a LAN cable.

Can I boost my wifi speed?

Often, yes. Sometimes no. There are a number of tricks and tips in this guide to help you improve the speeds around your home.

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