Dan Howdle | February 13th, 2024
Once the domain of the tech nerd, broadband (or the internet in general) is something most of us now take for granted. It has become so ingrained in our lives it's widely regarded as a utility like electricity or gas. The internet works away quietly in the background, and so long as it is working as it should, we tend to barely give it a second thought.
Asking ‘what is broadband’ might seem like an idiotic question. It’s a bit like asking '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. We tend to think that what a product or service does defines it, instead of what it actually is. What is electricity? Well, it's the stuff that powers your devices, but that's not a good definition.
So, what is broadband then? Well, once upon a time people used to send Morse code telegrams to communicate with each other. The code was a series of dots and dashes, or 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 technology; 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 the 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 wide area network.
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; there are many ways to get online.
Here we will take a brief look at the different technologies used to enable broadband and how they differ from one another.
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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 supposed to know how many of them you need?
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.
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 a photo on Instagram or Facebook, most of us rarely upload files of any significant size.
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.
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' that 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.
Speed is one consideration when looking at broadband as a whole – as a package. But there are other things to consider besides.
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 cost 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.
Broadband providers will supply you a free router when you sign up for their service. 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 (such as those often supplied by budget providers).
Signal range is usually the biggest differentiator, so if your home is small – a flat, for example – you can probably get away with a budget router from a budget provider more readily than someone with a five-bedroom detached property. Having said that, a number of providers now offer wifi boosters or wifi mesh systems as optional extras that work with your router to provide a good signal throughout your home.
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. It’s something to consider. You can usually add TV (or a mobile package) later on if you want to, but if you do, your provider may make you sign a brand new contract for the whole lot, including your pre-existing broadband service, committing you to another 18 months.
Standard broadband contracts are usually for 18 months, but in some cases you can find contracts of up to two years. Once your contract term begins, 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 is often the total amount left to pay till the end of the contract. Consider contract length carefully.
If you've considered all other factors, this can be the thing that determines your ultimate choice. What extras 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 offers change all the time. It’s 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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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.
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 internet connection will be.
Steal it from your neighbour? We're kidding of course. The cheapest way to get it is to find the cheapest deal available in your area. That changes day to day, and also remember that 'cheapest' isn't always the same as 'best value'. Use the postcode checker on this page to find the best deals near you.
No. Apart from taking your laptop outside with you and finding a free public wifi hotspot, a secure, reliable broadband connection cannot be had for free.
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.