Your Ultimate Guide To Broadband
Broadband has evolved from a ‘nice to have’ to being regarded as a utility as important as water, gas or electricity. Most British households have some kind of broadband connection even if it is only used for checking emails and keeping up with family.
Broadband is a huge subject and there is a lot to get to grips with. That’s why we partnered with Broadband Genie to put together this ultimate guide to broadband. By the end of this guide you should have a much better idea of what broadband is, how to identify a good broadband deal, the different technologies involved, how broadband contracts work and even some basic network setup techniques.
What should I look for in a broadband package?
A broadband package is made up of several key features. They are speed, data, cost and contract length. Special offers and discounts are also useful so we will explain those too.
Broadband speeds explained
Broadband is a catch-all term for a range of different technologies including ADSL and fibre optic (which itself includes even more acronyms – FTTP, HFC and FTTC). You don’t need to know how they work in depth but we will explain them in more detail below to help when you’re picking a broadband deal. For now, all you need to know is that ADSL is the slowest and fibre is the fastest.
All those technologies except HFC fibre uses the Openreach (BT line) network, even if the service isn’t sold by BT. HFC (or cable broadband) is run by Virgin Media and is completely separate from the BT telephone network
Broadband speed is measured in megabits per second (Mbps) or gigabits per second (Gbps). The higher the number, the faster the broadband, and gigabits is many times faster than megabits.
A typical ADSL connection can deliver an average of 10-11Mbps. FTTC fibre is available with average speeds of around 35Mbps, 50Mbps, or 65Mbps, while FTTP (“full fibre”) can deliver a wide range of speeds, including in excess of 1Gbps. Virgin Media fibre currently offers up to 519Mbps.
As an example, it would take around 50 minutes to download a high definition movie at 10Mbps, but only 5 minutes at 100Mbps. You would need a practical minimum of 5Mbps to stream an HD movie on the internet. For basic internet use, anything above 2Mbps would be fine for a single person (but you also need to consider how many people are sharing the broadband).
One thing to look out for is the ‘average speed’ caveats in broadband advertising. Ofcom has made vendors provide much more accurate speed estimates, but they are only estimates. Due to the limitations of broadband technology and how close you may be to a telephone exchange, it is almost impossible to give a precise speed for your broadband. That’s why you see average speeds advertised, as these are the speeds that 50% of that provider’s customers are receiving.
Generally speaking, broadband contracts are priced according to their speed. Slower connections are cheaper while newer fibre connections are more expensive. However, there are also other aspects which can impact the price, including data limits and contract length, and what the package includes.
Fortunately, data limits are rare nowadays but some broadband contracts still include them. They are essentially caps on how much data you can download per month before being charged extra or having your speed slowed. If you see something that reads ‘max 20GB data per month’ this is a data cap and something to be avoided wherever possible. Unlimited broadband is readily available and is not expensive.
Broadband contracts begin with a fixed term and then switch to a rolling monthly contract. You will usually see 12, 18, or 24 month contracts when shopping for broadband. This means you’re locked into the contract for that period of time. Once complete, you switch to a rolling monthly contract unless you change provider.
You can still leave your provider during this fixed term but may have to pay an early termination fee. This is usually the number of months left on your contract multiplied by a monthly cost. If you’re on the rolling monthly part of the contract, you can leave anytime for free as long as you give the required notice.
Some providers do offer short term deals (such as 30 day, 3 month or 9 month contracts), but these are rare and they tend to be more expensive than the longer terms.
Special Offers & Discounts
Lots of broadband providers have special offers and discounts for new customers. They can range from money off your contract, to shopping vouchers, to gifts such as a Bluetooth speaker. If a provider is offering a discount, it’s important to look at the full cost over the term to assess whether it’s a good deal or not.
A discount off your monthly bill for the first six months is only a good deal if the full price after that discount is still competitive. The same for a free gift. It’s only free if you’re paying market rate for your broadband and not extra to cover the cost of that gift.
The Technical Stuff – ADSL & Fibre Explained
We promised to explain broadband technologies a little further and that’s what we are going to do now!
Broadband is an umbrella term for a range of technologies used to deliver internet access. They include ADSL, FTTP, FTTC and HFC (cable). Let’s take a quick look at each.
ADSL and FTTC connections all use the BT Openreach network, often resold by other companies such as TalkTalk, Sky, Plusnet and others. Cable is completely separate and sold only by Virgin Media. FTTP is offered by a number of different companies, including Openreach.
ADSL stands for Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line. It uses copper telephone lines and some clever technology within the BT network to deliver average speeds of 10-11Mbps. ADSL has been around a long time but because most properties in the UK have a telephone line, it is still a very popular broadband technology.
Fibre – FTTP & FTTC
Fibre uses fibre optic cables for all or part of your broadband connection. FTTP stands for Fibre To The Premises and means fibre cable is laid directly to the property. FTTC stands for Fibre To The Cabinet which means fibre cable is laid to the green street cabinet and then switches to your phone line or coaxial cable to the property.
Virgin Media HFC
Virgin Media uses a different network and a different technology. It is often called cable or HFC, which stands for Hybrid Fibre Coaxial. Virgin Media has a similar fibre network to BT but rather than switching to copper phone lines at the street cabinet, cable uses coaxial. This is much faster than copper which is why Virgin Media offers much higher speeds than those you’ll find on ADSL or FTTC.
How do I find the right broadband for me?
The ‘right’ broadband contract means the one that delivers the service you require at a price you’re happy with. Finding the right broadband depends entirely on what you want to use your broadband for.
If you’re a busy family, or you live in a shared home, where you’re doing things like playing games online and streaming movies and TV, faster fibre broadband is likely the best option. But if you live alone, or think you will only use the internet occasionally just to check emails or keep up with the news, lower priced ADSL broadband may be better.
How To Compare Deals
You can compare broadband deals in the same way you compare gas and electricity. There are comparison websites such as Broadband Genie that can tell you what deals are available in your area at what price. All you need do is enter your postcode and the search engine will show the deals available. Once you see what’s available, you can use your own criteria to decide whether each deal works for you or not.
Look at the price, speed, contract length, and any data caps or restrictions before you buy. Also look out for special offers to see if you can save money on your chosen service.
How to check the customer service before you buy
Broadband speed and price is only one aspect of good service. The other is how well you’re looked after once you sign up. Customer service varies between providers as it does between any company. Many comparison websites will include reviews or star ratings for customer service and other elements so it’s worth checking these before signing.
Another way to check is to visit the Ofcom website and read their study of the best and worst broadband providers. You can also use online review services such as Feefo and Trustpilot, though as always with online reviews you have to keep in mind that happy customers are less likely to comment than those who have a complaint!
Checking coverage and availability
Broadband comparison sites can offer a reliable way to assess what’s available in your area by simply entering a postcode.
You can also enquire with the provider themselves as each will have its own coverage and availability checker on its website, though of course they will only inform you about their services and won’t tell you about other broadband which may be available.
TV & Phone Bundles
Some broadband providers offer what is known as triple or quad play services. This is where the same provider offers broadband, TV and telephone services as a single contract with a single bill. Quad play services offer mobile phones as part of the bundle.
Some of these offer great value, but only if you would otherwise be paying for them individually. If you only need broadband and a telephone, bundle deals aren’t always the cheapest option.
Broadband Only Deals
Broadband only deals are just that. Broadband without TV, telephone or mobile. If you don’t use a landline, need TV services or mobile, these can offer great value.
However, “broadband only” can mean different things. Any standard ADSL or fibre service using the Openreach network requires an active telephone line, so you must pay line rental. In that situation a broadband only deal can mean a package with broadband and a telephone line but without inclusive calls, or it can mean a provider which lets you get line rental from another company. However the latter is now quite rare, and in most cases you will have to take line rental from the same company that provides broadband.
If you don’t want to pay line rental, then your only options are either Virgin Media, or an FTTP connection (because full fibre does not rely on the old copper telephone network).
Understanding Your Broadband Contract
Contracts can be complicated but by knowing a few key terms, you will be in a much better position to understand what you’re signing up for.
If you buy broadband online or over the phone, you have an automatic cooling off period of 14 days from the day you sign the contract. This is your legal right and you can cancel your broadband contract for any reason, with no charge within this time.
There is nothing more frustrating than signing up for 24 months and the price going up after a couple of months. The good news is that if that price rise is above the rate of inflation, you have the right to leave with no penalty. You just need to contact your provider and tell them within 30 days of being notified of the price rise. Some providers now offer a fixed price guarantee which promises never to raise costs.
You should have been given an estimated speed when you signed your contract. If your speeds are much lower, you may be able to cancel your contract for free. You will need to work with your provider to try to improve those speeds first. If the provider cannot deliver those promised speeds and it is not your fault either, you do have the right to cancel.
Fair use policies
Some broadband providers have fair use policies, even when they are advertised as unlimited. These are a catch-all term designed to prevent some customers using up all the network leaving others to suffer slower speeds. They often include ‘reasonable use’ of your connection, which essentially means using your broadband as a typical household would.
As long as you don’t upload and download huge amounts of data, you should never need to worry about these.
Traffic Management Policies
Traffic management policies are another contract term worth knowing. Traffic management is when the broadband provider slows down traffic at certain times. This can be down to the sheer number of users, to keep data flowing during network outages or planned works.
Traffic management can mean limiting the amount of data you can download or the speed at which your connection works. Fortunately, traffic management is gradually being phased out and many providers now offer a truly unlimited service where your line will always run at maximum speed.
Your Rights To Cancel
We mentioned earlier that if you want to cancel your broadband contract within the fixed term, you may be subject to an early termination fee. This differs by provider but is typically the number of months left of that fixed term multiplied by a per month cost.
Sometimes a provider will waive this fee but you will need to negotiate with them. For example, if a new job forces a house move somewhere the provider doesn’t offer broadband, they may waive the fee. You may also be allowed to cancel for free if the broadband is very slow, or if you have a complaint.
Your Right To Complain
If any aspect of your broadband does not meet expectations, you have the right to complain. You should first complain to the provider and give them the opportunity to address the issue. If that doesn’t work, providers will have an escalation process where someone more senior takes a look.
If that doesn’t work, there is always Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). Every provider must be a member of either CISAS or Ombudsman Services: Communication, and in the event of an unresolved dispute they can step in and make a judgement. You cannot complain to the ombudsman until you have given your provider the opportunity to address the situation directly.
Setting Your Broadband Up
Now you have a new broadband contract, you’re going to want to get the most out of it.
Now you have a new broadband contract, you’re going to want to get the most out of it.
Broadband installation is handled entirely by the provider. They should walk you through the entire process and explain each step as you go. Broadband installation typically goes like this:
- You sign your broadband contract and set an approximate start date.
- The provider contacts you to discuss installation and arrange an engineer visit if required.
- The engineer arrives at a time agreed with you and performs all external work necessary. They may then need to perform work inside your property to connect it to the broadband.
- You test the connection and discuss using the modem or router with the engineer.
- You are asked to sign off the work to confirm the connection is complete.
The whole process typically takes 14 days.
If you have had broadband before, you may not need an engineer visit – all you’ll have to do is plug in the Wi-Fi router your ISP will send on the day it’s due to be activated.
If the property has never had broadband, or you are moving between Openreach and Virgin Media, an engineer will need to visit.
Before you sign off on the work, make sure you are completely happy with the installation, quality of work and have made sure everything is operating as it should.
Wi–Fi security basics
If you’re using wireless in your home, there are a couple of key things you need to do right away. You will need to log into your router to do these via a web browser – the username and password should be on a sticker on the router.
Change your router and wireless password. Everyone knows the default passwords for routers and wireless networks, so make sure you change them right away.
If your router has a guest network it is a good idea to use this feature for visitors. It provides internet access without allowing them to connect to other devices on your network.
Make sure the router firewall is enabled. This helps protect your network against attacks from the internet.
Make sure your Wi-Fi network is using WPA2 security (or WPA3, if available). This will be within the Wi-Fi settings of your router, and is important to prevent unauthorised access to your network.
How to get the best Wi-Fi signal
If you live in a large or older home with thick walls, you may find the wireless signal doesn’t reach everywhere. Try to place your wireless router close to the centre of your property for best results.
If that doesn’t work, consider using a signal booster. These are small devices that plug into the mains that boost the Wi-Fi signal. They cost from around £20 and are very simple to set up.
If your router has Ethernet ports, using a wired connection is much faster and more secure than using wireless. This won’t always be possible but is the optimal network if you can use it.
If you would prefer to use wired networking over wireless, you may like to consider powerline adapters. They are small devices that plug into the mains and use your property’s electrical wiring to provide a network. Connect your router to one end using an Ethernet cable and connect computers from other adapters using Ethernet cables. It’s a very effective way to build a home network.