Skip to main content

Broadband jargon guide

Computing, broadband and the internet can be very confusing for the uninitiated. It's a situation that's often compounded by salespeople or promotions using terms that make little sense to laymen.

Here, we'll take you through the key phrases and acronyms to get you up to speed and give you the knowledge you need to make an informed broadband buying decision.

The jargon

This covers the majority of home broadband connections. ADSL uses existing BT phone lines to deliver an internet connection. The 'A' stands for 'asymmetric', which refers to the fact that you can download data faster than uploading. 'DSL' stands for 'digital subscriber line', which is simply the family of technologies that make your internet connection possible. If this is the type of connection you're after, you can compare ADSL broadband deals now.

ADSL2 + (or ADSL2plus or ITU G.992.5)
ADSL2+ uses the same hardware as ADSL but different software, allowing it to potentially double download speeds, depending on the distance of the telephone exchange from the customer's home. For a faster alternative to ADSL, compare ADSL2 broadband deals here.

Annex M (or ADSL2+M)
This increases the potential of ADSL2+ by doubling the number of upstream bits, allowing you to upload data twice as fast, dependent on the distance of the exchange.

Bits and Bytes
Basically, bits and bytes are information or data. In computing terms, a bit is a binary digit 0 or a binary digit 1, and bytes are made up of eight bits. For more information, check out our Bits and Bytes Explained guide to learn the difference between the two terms.

The number of bits that are conveyed or processed per unit of time, typically listed in seconds. Broadband speeds, for example, are bitrates, although they use megabits (example: 17Mbps) instead of individual bits to measure the rate.

A technology that allows a fast data rate and different channels on a single line. Prior to the invention of broadband, the internet was accessible through a single connection or band shared between the phone and the web. The microfilter you have plugged into the wall (phone one side, internet the other) means that you can use the telephone at the same time as the internet, which wasn't possible with 56k connections or dial-up.

Cable Broadband
Cable broadband is a fibre-optic internet connection which is both faster and more reliable than 4G or ADSL. Because cable broadband runs through fibre-optic lines instead of telephone lines, it isn't available everywhere in the UK just yet. Click here to see if it's available in your area and to compare cable broadband deals.

Internet access through a dial-up modem. This is a cheap form of internet access but is much, much slower than a broadband connection. In the '90s, this was the way everybody connected to the internet, and it meant that only the internet or telephone could be in use at any one time.

Download Limits
This refers to the amount of data (in MB or GB) that your ISP will let you download each month without either restricting your broadband account or charging you for it. To make sure you're getting the amount of downloads you need, compare heavy-use broadband options now.

Digital subscriber line is the broadband technology behind your ADSL internet connection.

A digital subscriber line access multiplexer (DSLAM) enables telephone lines to have faster connections to the internet. This network device is usually located at a telephone company exchange and collects the digital signals from its multiple modem ports. It then combines them into one signal through a process called multiplexing. The distance of the DSLAM to your house has an impact on the level of Mb broadband you can get. Local conditions can vary, but the closer you are to the DSLAM, the higher your Mb will be.

Downstream refers to the speed in which data is sent from the server to your computer, more commonly known as downloading. A 17Mbps connection speed translates as being able to download near to 17 megabits per second. The rate of the download speed is dependent on the downstream of the user and the upstream of the server/DSLAM the data is being downloaded from.

“Free” Broadband
A bit of a misnomer — many providers used to offer 'free' broadband to their customers, but it’s often part of a home phone, TV or mobile contract. Under new requirements, providers must use all-in pricing instead, which displays the total monthly price, including line rental.

Internet service provider — this is the company who will provide your broadband service.

Internet Protocol Television is a system where television is delivered via the internet, normally through a broadband connection. To use this on a regular TV a set-top box is needed, which should be provided by your ISP. IPTV provides programs and shows on demand, and you can also fast-forward, rewind, stop and pause live programs. For more information on IPTV, read our "What is IPTV?" guide.

MAC number
Migration authorisation code (MAC) was a unique code used for switching broadband providers. Previously, customers had to call their current ISPs and ask them to issue MACs, allowing them to switch providers. Regulations have changed, however, to make it much easier for you to switch broadband.

Mb and Mbps
Mb is a unit of storage, short for megabit. A bit is a 1 or a 0, and a megabit is 1,024,000 of these. Megabits per second is how broadband speeds are usually listed as they reflect how much data can be transferred within a second. In broadband terms, the higher the Mbps (megabits per second), the faster the broadband. Depending upon your location and provider, internet connections in the UK can range between 17Mbps and 330Mbps in the UK. For more information on bits and bytes, click here for the uSwitch Bits and Bytes Explained guide.

Mobile Broadband
Broadband for your laptop or tablet. All you need is a USB connection and you can get broadband while 'on the go' or 'mobile'. This uses 4G technology, which is the same used by smartphones. Compare mobile broadband packages now.

Monthly Cost
ISPs usually charge you monthly for your broadband, unless you pay upfront for a year’s contract. Prices can vary widely depending upon the package and provider you choose. If you think you're overpaying, you can compare cheap broadband packages here.

A method of transferring data so it can processed as a steady or constant stream. This is in contrast to downloading, where the whole file must be transferred to the user's device before it can be viewed. Streaming is normally used as a means of viewing media without actually downloading the information, essentially listening to or watching media ‘live’.

Unlimited Broadband
If you have this, you can download and stream to your heart's content! It simply means that you have no download limits on your broadband account and you can download as much as you like without restrictions. If you use a lot of data, it's worth checking out unlimited broadband deals.

This is the process of transferring information from the client to the server or uploading. The speed of this differs greatly to downstream because upstream is used mainly for web server applications, where uploading information to the server is critical.

Video on demand allows viewers to download or stream video content through an interactive television service, whether live or prerecorded.

Voice over Internet Protocol is the routing of voice conversations through an internet connection or any other IP-based network. It allows programs like Skype to work and provides homes and offices with telephone through internet connections instead of traditional phone lines.

Wireless Broadband
This is broadband via WLAN (wireless local area network). Any internet connection can be wireless; it's the modem or router used that makes it wireless or not. These days, most broadband companies offer a free wireless router with wireless broadband deals. If your provider doesn't give you free routers, have a look at our wireless routers guide.