Broadband for Beginners

What is broadband?

It’s a way of connecting your desktop computer, laptop, tablet, games console or mobile phone to the internet. Broadband is also known as ‘always on’ internet because, once installed, it is permanently available as soon as you switch your computer on, rather than having to manually activate a modem every time.

It’s specifically called ‘broadband’ because it offers faster speeds than the old ‘narrowband’ connection. ‘Bands’ are bandwidths – a measurement of information – and the broader the band, the more information can pass through it at higher speed.

The vast majority of UK homes now have broadband, with less than 1% of the nation still going online using the old dial-up modem method.

Why is broadband so good?

It’s faster than dial-up. Browsing, streaming – watching, listening or playing ‘live’ rather than downloading – checking emails, and downloading attachments, films or games, takes a fraction of the time it used to.

Superfast is quicker still, in many cases allowing you to download very large quantities of data in just a few minutes. However, superfast does not yet have the almost complete national coverage that regular speed broadband enjoys – although new areas are being connected all the time.

Another advantage of broadband is that it doesn’t stop you from using your telephone at the same time (as long as you have a microfilter attached to your phone socket), and if there is more than one internet-capable device in your home, you can all be online at the same time.

How fast is fast?

It depends. Speeds can differ a lot based on the specifics of what your provider offers (some may limit speeds at certain times, for example), where in the country you live, and what type of broadband connection you have (there are several).

If you have a fixed-line, rather than a mobile connection (meaning that you own a router that you connect to your computer and your phone line), the quality of your landline also matters, as does how far you live from your local telephone exchange (generally the nearer you are, the faster your connection because the information sent between your computer and the exchange doesn’t have to travel as far).

On mobile devices, speeds can be affected by the quality and range of your operator’s network coverage, the amount of traffic at the time (the more people using the service, the slower it will be) and adverse weather conditions.

Typically, towns and cities have much faster broadband speeds than more rural areas. Speed is measured in Kbps (Kilobytes per second) and Mbps (Megabytes per second).

The slowest broadband in the country measures just over 0.5 Mbps or 500 Kbps (there are 1000 Kilobytes in a Megabyte). Regular speed broadband can reach speeds of 25 Mbps, and superfast can hit the dizzying heights of 150 Mbps or even more!

Online speed checkers allow you to input your postcode to see what speeds you can realistically expect to achieve in your area. These may well differ from the service advertised by broadband providers who tend to use the maximum, rather than average, speed as a guide.

What types of broadband are available?

There are five types of connection. ADSL, cable, fibre-optic, satellite and mobile.

  1. ADSL. The most common way to receive broadband is ADSL, which stands for Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line. More than 99% of the UK can connect to broadband this way. ADSL uses the traditional copper wire infrastructure that already exists between a telephone exchange and anyone with a landline. A small box called a microfilter is attached to the master phone socket in your premises, which splits your telephone signal into two, allowing you to make calls and be online simultaneously. You need a BT phone line to get started with this (something most people have already), though you do not have to subscribe to BT as your provider.
  2. Cable. If you can get cable television such as Virgin, then cable broadband is also an option for you. Information passes through the same cables as the television service, so you don’t need a BT phone line for this, though you do need to live in a cable-enabled area.
  3. Fibre-Optic. When people talk about ‘superfast’ broadband, it’s usually fibre-optic they mean. Fibre-optic cables consist of thousands of tiny fibres, and the speeds and reliability provided by these cables are consistent, and pretty fast. Fibre-optic broadband also does not become drastically slower the further you live from your local exchange. There is currently not nationwide coverage, although more regions are being added all the time.
  4. Satellite. This is usually used in regions where neither cable nor ADSL are available. A dish is installed at the customer’s home, and the internet feed is beamed to it from a satellite. This form of internet access is highly susceptible to poor weather conditions, and can be expensive.
  5. Mobile. This option uses the mobile network to provide the internet connection – but isn’t dependent on having a mobile phone. Instead, a USB dongle is plugged into a USB port on your computer. No landline is required, and it can be used while out and about. However, increasing numbers of so-called Wi-fi hotspots mean that mobile internet is losing popularity. The quality of the connection also depends on how good the mobile network coverage is. Non 3G/4G areas are likely to suffer from a slower and less reliable connection.

Which of these options is the one for me?

There’s no right answer here. Your decision will depend on a variety of factors – what you use the internet for and how often, what’s available to you where you live, and how much you’re willing to pay.

But we’ll go into more detail and explore different aspects of broadband services in the other guides in our series. can give you all the information you need to make an informed choice, to purchase the product that is right for you, and to enjoy using broadband.