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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 talk you through the key phrases and acronyms to get you up to speed and give all 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 Asymetric, which refers to the fact that you can download data faster than uploading. The DSL part stands for Digital Subscriber Line, which is simply the family of technologies that make your internet connection possible.
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ADSL2 + (or ADSL2plus or ITU G.992.5)
ADSL2+ uses the same hardware as ADSL but different software, doubling the number of downstream bits. This can mean a speed of up to 24Mbps downstream and 1Mbps upstream, depending on the distance of the telephone exchange from the customer's home.
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Annex M (or ADSL2+M)
This increases the potential of ADSL2+ by doubling the number of upstream bits, dependent on the distance of the exchange.

In computing terms a bit is a binary digit 0 or a binary digit 1.
Click here for the uSwitch Bits and Bytes Explained guide.

The number of bits that are conveyed or processed per unit of time.

A technology that allows a fast data rate and different channels on a single line. 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.

Cable Broadband
Cable Broadband is a fibre-optic internet connection. Virgin Media, BT and networks that piggyback on BT's fibre infrastructure, such as Sky and Talk, now provide this service, which is both faster and more reliable than 3G, 4G or ADSL.
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Internet access through a dial up modem. This is a cheap form of internet access but is much slower than a broadband connection. In the '90s this was the way that everybody connected to the internet, and it meant that only the internet or telephone could be in use at any one time. It wasn't possible to use both at the same 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 a) restricting your broadband account or b) charging you for it. Compare heavy-use broadband options now.

Digital Subscriber Line is the broadband technology behind your internet connection.

A Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexer 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, especially beyond 2km, but the closer you are to the DSLAM the higher your Mb will be.

The downstream refers to the speed in which data is sent from the server to your computer. This process is more commonly known as downloading. Therefore, a 2Mb connection speed translates as being able to download near to two megabits per second. The rate of the download speed is dependent on the downstream of the user and the upstream of the server/DSLAM.

“Free” Broadband
A bit of a misnomer - many providers offer free broadband to their customers, but it’s often part of a home phone, TV or mobile contract. Compare free broadband deals now.

Internet Service Provider - this is the company who will provide your broadband service. We offer a service from most of them!

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) is a unique code used for switching broadband providers. In accordance with Ofcom regulations, it is compulsory for your current broadband provider to give you your MAC upon request. The MAC or MAC number is intended to make it quick and easy to change providers, but is only valid for 30 days, after this you will need to be issued with a new one.

By the end of 2014, however, a new system will be in place that does away with MAC codes altogether. This is intended to make it much simpler to switch provider.

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A unit of storage, short for megabit. A bit is a 1 or a 0, and a mega bit is 1,000,000 of these. In broadband terms, the higher the Mbps (megabits per second), the faster the broadband. Internet connections are usually between 0.5Mbps and 24Mbps in the UK, with only cable services providing higher speeds of up to 152Mbps. Click here for the uSwitch Bits and Bytes Explained guide.

Mb/s or Mbps
A megabit per second refers to the speed of your broadband connection. This is the rate at which one Mb of information is transferred. For example, with a connection speed of 8Mbps, data is transferred at a rate of 8 megabits (or one megabyte) per second. 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 3G technology or the newer, faster 4G standard, which is the same used by mobile phones and smartphones such as newer iPhones or any number of Android phones.

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Monthly Cost
Broadband providers usually charge you monthly for your broadband, unless you pay upfront for a year’s contract. Some providers offer "free broadband". In these cases, the cost of the broadband is absorbed in the cost of the package. Compare cheap broadband packages.

A method of transferring data so that 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 computer before it can be viewed. Streaming is a 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 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. Compare unlimited broadband deals here.

Refers to the process of transferring information from the client to the server. 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

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.

Wireless Broadband
This is broadband via WLAN (wireless local area network). Any internet connection can be wireless - it's the modem/router that makes it wireless or not. These days, most broadband companies offer a free wireless router with their wireless packages. Compare wireless broadband deals packages now.